A journalist and lawyers who worked together to expose sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar recently explained at a University of Georgia event how they brought those abuses to light.
The lawyers also said Georgia law needs to be changed because it effectively makes it impossible for many victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue the people or institutions who abused them, or allowed it to happen.
The USA Gymnastics investigation began some two years ago in Indiana when reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski and other Indianapolis Star reporters were investigating reports of cover-ups of sexual abuse complaints against coaches by USA Gymnastics.
But a civil lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in April and the Indianapolis newspaper’s still unfinished fight to get records from that case opened were what convinced a flood of victims to contact the newspaper and lawyers with their individual stories of abuse.
Kwiatkowski spoke in Athens on Saturday during a conference sponsored by the UGA School of Law’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic. She was joined on the panel by Savannah lawyer Brian Cornwell, who represents the plaintiff in an Effingham County lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and a now-jailed gymnastics coach who worked at a Savannah gym. Atlanta lawyer Derek Bauer, who represented the Indianapolis Star as it sought records from the Effingham County case, and Courtney Kiehl, a former gymnast who had been a victim of sex abuse, completed the panel.
Their panel’s moderator was Atlanta lawyer Darren Penn, who earlier this year filed a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and other defendants on behalf of men who allege they were sexually abused as children by an Athens scoutmaster.
Nassar had not been a focus of the Indianapolis newspaper’s investigation at first, but when the Star reported on its efforts to get the Georgia records, victims began contacting the reporters and editors.
“I came forward as soon as I found out there were other girls,” said Kiehl.
A Michigan judge sentenced Nasser last week to up to 175 years in prison after hearing from 156 victims who testified how Nassar, a former U.S. Olympic team doctor, had abused them. The entire board of USA Gymnastics has resigned, and Michigan’s attorney general has announced an investigation into Michigan State University administrators’ handling of sexual violence reports, including reports of gang rapes by Michigan State athletes. Michigan State’s president and athletic director have also resigned.
Nassar’s case may be just the tip of an iceberg. More than 100 related civil lawsuits have now been filed across the country, Kwiatkowski said.
The open records fight is not over, either. When the Effingham County judge ordered the files released, USA Gymnastics twice appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court to no avail. The public has no interest in those records, USA Gymnastics lawyers argue, calling the newspapers fight to get access “a witch hunt.”
When the records were actually made public, they had been heavily redacted; in one case, 175 pages of total redaction, Bauer said. Some records remain under seal.
It was fortuitous timing that brought the panel to Athens Saturday, days after media worldwide headlined Nassar’s sentencing.
Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks clinic, had actually begun contacting the panelists nearly a year ago, she said.
Bauer and Cornwell explained to their audience in UGA’s Rusk Hall why it’s so difficult for victims to sue those responsible, and how Georgia law adds to that difficulty.
It takes years for many victims to come to terms with what’s happened to them, Cornwell said. They’re justifiably fearful of coming forward with an accusation, because their abusers are often highly respected and well-liked community members.
“They completely lose trust,” Cornwell said.
Georgia law requires sexual abuse to be reported, but there is no civil penalty for failure to do so, he said.
There’s an effort now to make failure to report a felony in Georgia.
“But it gives the victim absolutely nothing,” he said. “This is a systemic problem. This is an epidemic problem. The only way it can change is to hit people in the pocketbook.”
Civil lawsuits are the best regulation for organizations that bear responsibility for allowing such crimes to occur or continue through their inaction, the lawyers said.
But by the time they reach the point where they might face the challenge of filing a lawsuit, a Georgia statute of limitations has run out.
Georgia law allows a childhood victim to sue up until age 23, or the “discovery of the abuse and resulting harm”, according to the Wilbanks Center’s website. That means many will never be able to sue, the lawyers said.
But each time someone shares his or her story, it helps others be able to come forward, she said.
Kwiatkowski and her colleagues are now looking at where “systems have broken” down and failed to protect victims, she said.
“You’re going to see a lot more about entities being held responsible,” she said.