FBI director apologizes for handling of gymnastics abuse case
By Juliet Macur
Simone Biles, the most accomplished gymnast in history, did not want to be in Congress in Washington on Wednesday, testifying to a Senate committee about the FBI’s mishandling of one of the biggest sexual abuse cases in U.S. history.
Sitting at the witness table alongside three of her former teammates on the U.S. national team, Biles said she couldn’t imagine being less comfortable. But she chose to publicly address lawmakers for herself, as a survivor of that abuse, but also for other athletes, especially children, whom she feels compelled to protect.
Biles, 24, broke down in tears when explaining that she does not want any more young people to endure the suffering that she has at the hands of a pedophile. She and hundreds of other girls and women were molested by Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor. He is now serving what amounts to life in prison for multiple sex crimes.
“To be clear. I blame Larry Nassar, but I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” Biles said.
McKayla Maroney also testified, describing, in moving detail, how the FBI mistreated her when she told agents how Nassar molested her again and again, even just before she won her Olympic gold medal. She had told them about a time when she and Nassar were in Tokyo for a competition and he molested her. She thought she “was going to die that night because there was no way he was going to let me go.”
When she finished telling the FBI about the abuse, trauma she hadn’t even told her mother about yet, she said the agents answered, “Is that all?” She was just a teenager, and she felt crushed by their lack of empathy.
“Not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented my report 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said,” Maroney testified. “They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me but countless others.”
After the gymnasts spoke, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified about the agency’s botched handling of the Nassar sexual abuse case, the first public questioning of the failure to properly investigate a sexual abuse case that shook the sports world to its core. Wray, who became the agency’s director in 2017, apologized to the victims, and said he was “heartsick and furious” when he heard that the FBI had made so many errors in the case before he took charge of the agency.
“We need to remember the pain that occurred when our folks failed to do their job,” he said, referring to the victims’ suffering. He added that the FBI would make changes to make sure the mismanagement never happened again.
The hearing came days after the FBI fired one agent who initially worked on the case investigating Nassar, the former national gymnastics team doctor who ultimately was convicted on state charges of abusing scores of gymnasts, including Olympians, under the guise of physical exams.
And it comes two months after the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report that sharply criticized the FBI for making crucial errors in the matter. Those errors allowed Nassar to continue treating patients for eight months at Michigan State University, where he practiced, and in and around Lansing, Michigan, including at a local gymnastics center and a high school.
Nassar, who is serving what amounts to life in prison for sexual misconduct, was able to molest more than 70 girls and women while the FBI failed to act, the inspector general’s report said.
To kick off the hearing, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) scolded the FBI for its “dereliction of duty,” “systematic organizational failure” and “gross failures” in the case, and said lawmakers would like to know from the FBI how and why those failures happened and why it decided not to pursue charges against its agents who made devastating errors in the case.
“It shocks the conscience when the failures come from law enforcement itself, yet that’s exactly what happened in the Nassar case,” Durbin said.
Two FBI agents initially assigned to the case no longer work for the agency. Michael Langeman, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Indianapolis office, was fired in the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Those people did not want their names published because they do not have the authority to speak about the case. The Washington Post was the first to publish news of Langeman’s firing.
Langeman, who was not immediately available for comment, was not named in the inspector general’s report, but his actions as the special supervisory agent, and his multiple crucial missteps, were described in detail. The report said Langeman should have known that Nassar’s abuse was probably widespread, yet he did not investigate the case with any urgency.
Langeman interviewed just one of the three elite gymnasts who gave USA Gymnastics details of Nassar’s abuse and did not properly document that interview or open an investigation. In an interview report Langeman filed with the FBI 17 months after he spoke to that gymnast — Maroney, who was not named in the report — he included statements she did not make, according to the report.
Like other agents initially involved in the case, Langeman also did not alert local or state officials of Nassar’s alleged abuse, violating FBI policy that states that crimes against children “invariably require a broad, multijurisdictional, and multidisciplinary approach.”
Langeman later said he had filed an initial report about Nassar, asking for the case to be transferred to the Lansing office because that’s where Nassar was based at Michigan State. But the paperwork wasn’t found in the FBI database, the inspector general’s report said.
Hundreds of girls and women who were abused by Nassar have been waiting to hear from the FBI about the mistakes in the case. Biles, the Olympic gold medalist, has been vocal about wanting to know “who knew what, and when” about Nassar. She won a silver medal and a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games after dropping out of the team competition because of a mental health issue.
Biles testified alongside former teammates Maroney, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols, who is known as “Athlete A” in the Nassar case because she was the first elite gymnast to report the abuse to USA Gymnastics. That was in July 2015. The Lansing office of the FBI opened its official investigation into Nassar in October 2016.