Michigan lawmakers pressed to give Robert Anderson accusers 'day in court'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Advocates pleaded with state lawmakers Thursday to alter governmental immunity protections to help those who have accused Dr. Robert Anderson, who worked for the University of Michigan, of a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct.

Anderson, who died in 2008, served UM for 35 years as head of University Health Service and as team physician for the UM Athletic Department. Hundreds of individuals have accused him of using his position of trust to commit sexual abuse, and some have sued UM, arguing the university helped cover up his actions.

The state House Oversight Committee held a hearing Thursday morning on two bills, inspired by Anderson, that would change the statute of limitations and a governmental immunity law. The meeting was the opening step in the legislative process for the proposals, which could eventually boost the efforts to bring legal action against UM.

Jon Vaughn, a former star UM running back, told legislators that his appointments, three decades ago, with Anderson repeatedly featured the doctor fondling his genitals and doing prostate checks "under the guise of medicine."

Former University of Michigan football player Jonathan Vaughn (left) with Rep. Ryan Bergman during testimony in Lansing on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 on two bills, inspired by the late University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, that would change the statute of limitations and a governmental immunity law. Vaughn said Anderson sexually assaulted him while he was a student at UM.

Vaughn, now 51, said Anderson "abused, assaulted and raped" young people who didn't know what was proper medical care and trusted the university doctors.

"Now, I feel a deep shame because there were Michigan personnel who knew about this abuse," he said. "What seem like routine checkups for most adults have become traumatizing for me.

"After my experiences at Michigan, I have mostly avoided medical care because it makes me very uncomfortable."

Vaughn accused UM of an institutional coverup and creating "a syndicate of abuse."

"This will go down as the largest sexual abuse and rape coverup in the history of sports," he said. "I think we have the time right now where we can stop this."

One of the bills in the package would limit the reach of governmental immunity, stipulating that the protection for government agencies doesn't apply if an organization or employee knew or should have known that someone who committed criminal sexual conduct had committed a prior act of wrongdoing. Also, the agency or employee must have failed to intervene.

The other proposal would expand the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits for victims of criminal sexual conduct and would institute a one-year window for some victims to commence an action regardless of the other limitations.

For the one-year window to apply, the individual who committed the misconduct would have to be in a position of authority over the victim or the individual must have engaged in a purported medical treatment or examination. The window would start once the bill takes effect.

In 2018, the Legislature approved a similar, but much shorter window for claims related to Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who used his position to abuse hundreds of girls and women.

One of Nassar's victims urged lawmakers on Thursday to approve the Anderson-inspired bills. Trinea Gonczar, a gymnast who said she was abused by Nassar from age 8 until 24, said she didn't realize she had been assaulted until she was 37.

"Assault takes time to process," Gonczar told lawmakers. "Just because someone was raped early as a child, they should not be penalized.”

The Anderson bills were sponsored by state Reps. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit. They introduced similar proposals last year, but those bills failed to advance to Gretchen Whitmer's desk before the end of the session.

State Rep. Karen Whitsett, with Rep. Ryan Bergman in the background, wipes her eyes as they address the House Oversight Committee .  in Lansing on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 during testimony on two bills, inspired by the late University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, that would change the statute of limitations and a governmental immunity law.

It’s important, Berman said Thursday, to have people come forward with their stories and to see justice prevail.

"It’s just to allow people their day in court, allow them to tell their story, so they’re not shut out in their pursuit of justice,” Berman said of the bills.

The House Oversight Committee didn't vote on Thursday to send the proposals to the full House. Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said multiple hearings on the legislation will take place.

"It's a tough needle we're trying to thread here," Johnson said. "You're trying to make sure that we're protecting people ... while also protecting the rights of the innocent, too."

The Detroit News reported Thursday that UM President Mark Schlissel has acknowledged privately that claims against Anderson represented a "truly enormous" liability for the university.

“He’s been credibly accused of committing sexual misconduct on a very large number of our students that he had professional encounters with," said Schlissel during a Zoom meeting during the 2020 holiday season. "That’s becoming a big lawsuit, the exposure of the university is truly enormous ... could be hundreds of millions of dollars ... unlikely to be covered by insurance at that level ... so depending upon how those cases turn out, that’s gonna be a very significant financial challenge for the university.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald would not address the content of Schlissel's comments. 

"As you know, the university is actively engaged in a confidential, court-guided mediation process with the survivors of Robert Anderson's abuse, and we remain focused on that process," Fitzgerald wrote.

Former University of Michigan football player Jonathan Vaughn and former UM wrestler Tad DeLuca hug after testifying Lansing on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 on two bills, inspired by the late University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, that would change the statute of limitations and a governmental immunity law. Vaughn and DeLuca said Anderson sexually assaulted them.

Fitzgerald added in a follow-up statement that "we are working toward fair compensation for the survivors of Dr. Robert Anderson’s abuse through the ongoing, confidential mediation process that is being supervised by a federal judge.

In February 2020, 12 years after Anderson died, former UM student Robert Julian Stone became the first man to publicly accuse Anderson of sexual misconduct nearly 50 years after an alleged incident. Stone shared his story exclusively with The Detroit News.

A month later, the first lawsuits were filed against UM. UM asked a judge in May 2020 to dismiss the lawsuits because they were "filed decades too late," well past the three-year statute of limitations. But UM withdrew its request for dismissal when the two sides agreed to begin a mediation process in October.

University of Michigan officials knew as early as 1975 that Anderson had been accused of sexual misconduct, according to a report commissioned by the university and released in May.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed.