Simon apologizes: Nassar abuse is 'horrific chapter' for MSU

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon testifies during a Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

Washington — Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of innocent women marks a "horrific chapter" in Michigan State University's history, former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Tuesday. 

Simon apologized to Nassar's victims and said she regrets that he perpetrated some of his crimes on campus.

“I am truly horrified that Nassar’s crimes happened during my tenure,” Simon said.

“Had I known, I would have taken immediate action to prevent him from preying on additional survivors, including terminating his employment and reporting him to the police, as was done in 2016."

“Not a day goes by without me wishing that he had been caught and punished sooner. And not a day goes by without me wondering what we missed and what we could have done to detect this evil before the 2016 complaint."

Tuesday was the first time that Simon has spoken publicly about the Nassar scandal since resigning her university post following his sentencing in January. 

“Unfortunately, now four years removed from the first Michigan State investigation into Nassar allegations and three years after a USA Gymnastics coach first heard of the sports doctor's abuse, there are a multitude of questions that remain unanswered,"  Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, said in his opening statement.  

Ranking Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said their probe has revealed a "culture of complicity" at the organizations responsible for overseeing Nassar. He slammed "an abundance of finger pointing" in officials' testimonies.

"The evidence of lack of leadership in all these organizations is troubling to me," Blumenthal said. 

Nassar is effectively serving a life sentence in prison after admitting to sexually abusing girls and women under the guise of medical treatment and to possessing child pornography.

Nassar 'fooled everyone'

Simon said in her statement to the committee that Nassar was a “celebrated” sports doctor who treated Olympic stars, but also a “shrewd criminal predator” who “fooled everyone around him,” including colleagues and law enforcement.

MSU has taken steps since Nassar’s firing in September 2016 to set higher standards for patient safety, prevent sexual misconduct, support victims and respond to reports of such incidents, she stressed.

Simon said she encouraged the MSU Board of Trustees to initiate mediation with Nassar’s victims, noting the university reached a $500 million settlement in principle last month with more than 330 of them, including 31 current or former MSU students. 

“I recognize that resolving the civil litigation and providing monetary compensation to the survivors is but one step in a longer journey to make things right,” she said. “I am hopeful that the settlement allows survivors to focus on their healing and recovery.”

Victims make appearance

At least seven accusers of Nassar attended Tuesday's hearing, getting front-row seats for testimony from Simon and Nassar's other former employer — USA Gymnastics. 

Dancer Morgan McCaul, who says she was assaulted by Nassar at MSU's clinic, wanted to hear about the university's "mishandling" of a 2014 Title IX investigation prompted by a complaint against Nassar. That probe found no wrongdoing by Nassar. 

"Personally, I was seeing Larry for appointments before, during and after that investigation was being pursued, and I truly believe I could have been saved if they had handled it the right way," said McCaul, now a University of Michigan student. 

After the hearing, McCaul said she was "disgusted." 

"I got the same old empty apology today (from Simon) that I got in that board room in December," she said. "And it is more disturbing to me than ever that she'll continue to be on university faculty."

Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar victim from Macomb County, said she didn't think Simon was honest, such as saying she didn't learn about Nassar until 2016. 

"She knew in 2014. She may have not known who the doctor was, but ... she knew there was a complaint in 2014," said Lorincz, now a student at Adrian College.

"If you're the president of a university, and you don't know everything that is going on, then you shouldn't be running a university. She ran that university for too long."

Ex-USAG head takes Fifth

The Commerce Committee also subpoenaed former USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny, who refused to answer questions put to him by Moran and Blumental, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

"We certainly would have liked to have hear from you today. Mr. Penny, you are excused," Moran said. 

Former gymnast Amy Compton, also an abuse victim, stood in the audience and shouted, "Shame!" as Penny retreated from the room. He and his lawyer ignored questions from reporters as they left the building. 

Penny has been criticized for waiting five weeks before taking gymnasts' reports about Nassar to police, for not notifying MSU about Nassar, and for instructing gymnasts and his staff not to talk about their allegations.

Jeanette Antolin, a former USA gymnast and Nassar victim, called Penny a "coward."

"I'm just disappointed that Steve Penny is allowed to get off so easily," Antolin said after the hearing. 

"Even though (Simon) said things, obviously, could have been handled better, there was still no accountability on her part. Like, 'I followed procedures.' But as the senator said, don't you have a responsibility to humanity? Don't you have responsibility to kids? There was no follow-up with police."

Moran said he plans a third hearing to hear testimony from witnesses who currently head the institutions involved. 

Faehn rebukes Penny

Former USAG senior vice president Rhonda Faehn, who appeared voluntarily, delivered a scathing rebuke of Penny.

She said she repeatedly passed along gymnasts' reports about Nassar to Penny, who assured her that she was contacting their parents and the proper authorities. 

"Each time I reported these incidents, I was told by Penny not to say anything to anyone for fear of possibly impeding any investigation of Nassar," Faehn said.

"I was not aware in any delay in contacting the authorities or of any efforts to misinform anyone of the reasons for Nassar's departure from USAG. I tried to protect the gymnasts involved by making sure I immediately reported what I had learned from those who contacted me." 

Faehn, who was fired last month, says she was left feeling "surprised, hurt, confused, and I feel I am being falsely blamed for the alleged deficiencies of USAG." 

She choked up, saying she feels a deep sense of loss and compassion for Nassar's victims, "on whom my most sincere loyalties have always been focused, and whose concerns should have been reported to law enforcement authorities at the earliest possible moment, as I assumed was being done at the time, and as I would have done, had I known then what I know now." 

Simon and Nassar complaint

Detroit News investigation named Simon among 14 MSU staff members who received reports of Nassar’s sexual abuse over two decades.

Simon told The News in January that she was informed in 2014 of a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed sports medicine doctor, but that she did not receive a copy of the report.

She also did not ask for a copy, she said Tuesday under questioning by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

"I do not normally see any Title IX report, particularly one with no finding," Simon said.

She later said the investigation cited medical experts who opined that the procedure used by Nassar — which did not involve penetration in this case — was "legitimate." 

Blumenthal asked, “Should you have taken the initiative in 2014 rather than accepting the conclusions of that (Title IX) investigation?”

“Sir, I am not a doctor, nor am I capable of making judgments about medical procedures and their appropriateness,” Simon said.

“We are an imperfect system. Do I wish in hindsight things might have been different?" she said, nodding.

"I think going forward, we have to think very seriously about, again, how we think about the voices (of victims) and how we hear them." 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, pressed Simon about why the university hasn't released its internal review of how it handled Nassar, suggesting it could help other institutions. 

"That would be up to the Board of Trustees. There’s literally no written report," Simon replied.

Engler meeting probed

Simon was asked asked about whether she would have met with Lorincz — a defendant in ongoing litigation against MSU — without her lawyer president as her successor, interim MSU President John Engler, did. 

Lorincz has accused Engler of secretly trying to settle with her for $250,000 at that March meeting. Engler said she misunderstood the conversation. 

Simon said she'd only learned of the meeting through newspaper accounts, but that it's important "to hear and hear loudly" the experiences of victims.  

Blumenthal pressed Simon about whether she would have taken the meeting. 

"Not to make any kind of offer for a settlement agreement," Simon replied. 

Simon appeared before the subcommittee after U.S. marshals served her with a subpoena last week while she vacationed in Traverse City.

Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed.