Finley: MSU cost in gymnast abuse scandal could top $1B

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Using as a guide the cost of the child molestation scandal that rocked Penn State’s football program, it could cost Michigan State University more than $1 billion to resolve lawsuits filed by the former gymnasts who were sexually assaulted by Dr. Larry Nassar.

Penn State was hit with 33 lawsuits by victims of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Like the MSU victims, most were children when they were molested. Thirty-three lawsuits were filed against Penn State for failing to protect minors from a sexual predator on the university payroll.

MSU faces 144 suits, more than four times the Penn State total. Actual damages cost Penn State $93 million, but when attorney fees, fines and other costs are counted, the total price tag of the scandal is $243 million.

“MSU is nearly five times bigger in terms of the number of victims,” says David Mittleman, attorney for 40 of Nassar’s victims. “This could easily top $1 billion.”

The accusations against MSU are similar, and if they are borne out in court, the payouts could be expected to be in the same range.

That’s a tremendous potential liability, and one that could well undermine the university’s viability.

And yet the accountability for the scandal has been contained to Nassar, who pleaded guilty so far to sexually assaulting 10 girls.

That stands in stark contrast to what happened at Penn State, where the consequences of a major university enabling a serial predator went well beyond Sandusky. Not only did several members of the athletic department and administration lose their jobs, but the president, vice president and athletic director were all charged with crimes.

Incredibly, at MSU, there has been no truly independent investigation to determine just how far up the chain of command did knowledge of what was happening in the gymnastics program go. Who’s inattentiveness and possible negligence allowed Nassar to prey on children for more than 20 years?

Even the gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, who dismissed complaints from the victims as frivolous and pressured them to stay silent, was allowed to retire and begin collecting a pension without facing criminal charges.

MSU is working to keep the liability from spreading. The board of trustees announced in October that it would not release the findings of the investigator it hired to do an internal probe.

The handling of this case has been sketchy from the get-go, and neither university President Lou Anna Simon or state Attorney General Bill Schuette seem much interested in looking beyond Nassar to determine who else might be culpable in enabling the abuse of these girls and young women.

For starters, the criminal investigation was carried out by the campus police department, not by local or state law enforcement agencies.

The FBI apparently did an investigation but no charges have resulted at this time.

In the Penn State case, a grand jury was impaneled to weigh evidence that eventually resulted in charges against university officials. No state grand jury was formed to pursue how far the MSU scandal may reach.

Schuette, who so doggedly pursued the links of responsibility for the Flint water crisis into the top echelons of the Snyder administration, seems uninterested in ferreting out culpability at MSU and there is no active probe by his office of university officials.

Even those who clearly had knowledge of the complaints against Nassar have not been held to account.

That goes beyond Coach Klages, who publicly humiliated one young gymnast who questioned the doctor’s inappropriate treatment and sent a loud signal to others that she wasn’t interested in hearing any more such reports.

Dr. William Strampel, the longtime dean of the MSU osteopathic program who along with Klages is named in the lawsuits, should be included. Strampel sent Nassar a letter in 2014 instructing him to change his treatment practices to avoid “skin-to-skin” contact with patients, an indication he was aware of the concerns raised by the girls.

Who did Dr. Strampel tell? Under state law, it is a crime not to report suspected child abuse to an outside authority and to supervisors. Why aren’t state investigators talking with Strampel and Klages to find out if they did indeed report upward?

Or President Simon? What did she know and when? Simon and the MSU trustees are also named in the suits.

Schuette cited judicial gag orders in refusing to answer those questions. The FBI had conducted interviews but there’s no indication of an active investigation.

MSU has been allowed to bunker down and limit the reach of its liability for employing for more than two decades a serial molester and providing him easy access to his victims.

But a reckoning may be coming. The lawsuits filed in the federal district court for West Michigan in Grand Rapids are now in mediation. Barring settlements, they’ll enter the discovery stage this month.

Attorney Mittleman says his goal is to determine who knew what at MSU and bring to account anyone who enabled a monster.

He shouldn’t be the only one on that quest.

The attorney general’s office should reopen its investigation and pursue it with the same aggressiveness it did the negligence in the Flint water crisis.

The child abuse scandals at Penn State and MSU are near carbon copies. The only difference is that in Pennsylvania there was a commitment to accountability, no matter where it led.

In Michigan, the mission seems to be keeping the secrets locked safely away to protect the institution and the people who run it.

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