How the FBI and the System Failed Simone Biles and, Consequently, All Women and Girls

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Photo: Getty.

This past Tuesday, the entire country was treated to the emotional testimony of elite U.S. gymnast Simone Biles before the Senate about the abuse scandal of former team doctor Larry Nassar.

Although the former USA Gymnastics team doctor is serving an effective life sentence after abusing dozens of athletes in his care, Biles and other Olympic gold medalists such as Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney gave scathing testimony last Tuesday about the FBI’s failed investigation into the case in 2015.

A powerful testimony

Biles began her testimony with a quote from Nelson Mandela that, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” She briefly had to pause after becoming overcome with emotion before she continued.

“To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” she said. “USA Gymnastics and the United States, Olympic and Paralympic Committee knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge.”

As The Guardian explained, both the athletes and the individuals involved accuse the FBI of failing to adequately investigate allegations that Nassar abused athletes in his care.

“Children suffered needlessly because multiple agents in multiple offices at the FBI neglected to share the Nassar allegations with their law enforcement counterparts at state and local agencies,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said in prepared remarks before Tuesday’s hearing.

“The scars of this horrific abuse continue to live with all of us … I worked incredibly hard to make sure that my presence could help maintain a connection between the failures [around the Nassar case] and the competition at Tokyo 2020,” Biles said.

She referred to her withdrawal from team competitions at the Olympics, which she argued was due to her determination to take care of her mental health.

“That has proven to be an exceptionally difficult burden for me to carry, particularly when required to travel to Tokyo without the support of any of my family. I am a strong individual, and I will persevere, but I never should have been left alone to suffer the abuse of Larry Nassar. And the only reason I did, was because of the failures that lie at the heart of the abuse that you are now asked to investigate.”

The FBI’s indelible debt

In this way, Biles warned about the risk of such a serious precedent of the system’s failure and the FBI to protect women.

“Nassar is where he belongs. Those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable. If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic sports,” she said.

Similarly, Maroney and Raisman described how the FBI failed to adequately investigate their allegations against Nassar.

“After telling my entire story of abuse to the FBI in the summer of 2015, 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 fabricate. They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me but countless others.”

Aly Raisman, who served as captain of the 2012 and 2016 US Olympic gymnastics teams, expressed disgust that she was “still fighting for the most basic answers and accountability” more than six years after first reporting her abuse.

“Over the past few years, it has become painfully clear how a survivor’s healing is affected by the handling of their abuse,” she testified.

She criticized the FBI investigation as being “like guesswork,” warning that not addressing its serious flaws would result in a recurring “nightmare” for many more women.

Not an isolated case

As explained by the BBC, in total, Nassar was accused of sexual abuse by more than 330 women and girls at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

A long-awaited report on the FBI investigation, released in July, found numerous errors, delays, and cover-ups by FBI agents that allowed Nassar’s abuses to continue for several more months after the case was opened.

The 119-page report by the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that, despite the seriousness of the allegations against Nassar, the FBI’s Indianapolis field office had been slow to respond.

In fact, the agency initially interviewed only Maroney while refusing to interview other young women who had come forward with their stories.

Confronted with their mistakes, two FBI officials lied during the interviews to cover up their errors, according to the report. According to the FBI, one of those officials was fired just last week.

But the Larry Nassar case is not an isolated one.

“The criminal justice system is singularly unsuited to helping women get justice after sexual violence,” Dr. Ann Olivarius, an American-British lawyer of the firm, McAllister Olivarius, who specializes in cases of civil litigation, sexual harassment, and sexual discrimination, told BELatina. “When women do report sexual violence, they’re met with a sea of barriers: They can be straight up disbelieved, or the police might have outdated prejudices about rape or assault, so-called rape myths (‘what were you wearing,’ ‘she doesn’t act like a victim would,’ ‘you can’t be raped by someone you know,’ ‘it’ll always be a case of she said/he said).”

“These prejudices run along racial lines — while all kinds of women are disbelieved, Black and Latinas are disbelieved much more. They face added damaging stereotypes that hinder their access to justice,” Dr. Olivarius added. “Not only do most victims run afoul of the statute of limitations, because many go into shock or denial after an assault and can’t report immediately — and for some, it’s simply not safe to report quickly.”

In the United States, where women represent slightly more than half of the total population, the criminal justice system appears to be designed to serve the needs of men while continuing to legislate over women’s bodies.

The fact is that economic and social disparities put women at a disadvantage when it comes to legal defense, in large part due to what specialists call the “bureaucratic burden.”

“We know the criminal justice system far too often extracts a terrible price for victims,” Dr. Olivarius explained. “Many say the trial was as bad, if not worse, than the rape itself. But imagine that instead of going to the police, who often are overworked and not specialists in trauma and sexual violence, you went to a law firm, who are experts and 100% on your side? A victim can spend years of her life, losing out on work and family time, jeopardizing her mental health and career, trying to get justice.”

“And what does she get out of it? A paltry jail sentence, if she’s very, very lucky,” she concluded. “I know victims deserve more, to make them whole again. Victims deserve compensation. They deserve the funds to rebuild their lives after the damage a rape can wreck. When rapists aren’t afraid of going to jail, perhaps they’ll be afraid of going bankrupt.”