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Investigating USA Gymnastics, Uncovering Decades Of Abuse

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Scott Olson
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Larry Nassar listens to victim impact statements during his sentencing hearing after being accused of molesting more than 100 girls while he was a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University where he had his sports-medicine practice.

The sex abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics made national headlines. The series of stories by Indianapolis-based newspaper Indystar focused on sexual abuse claims made by young gymnasts, most of them minors.

The series led to more women speaking out about the abuse they’d faced. It ultimately led to the incarceration of Larry Nassar, formerly the national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who is accused of assaulting at least 150 girls.

"Our first story came out, it was general about USA Gymnastics. The first day we got something like 20 phone calls from women saying that their coaches had molested them and within a very short time three of these women who called us named one person and that was Larry Nassar," says Steve Berta, investigations editor at Indystar. 

"The first day we got something like 20 phone calls from women saying that their coaches had molested them and within a very short time three of these women who called us named one person and that was Larry Nassar."

Berta is one of the journalists behind the series. He was in Milwaukee to deliver the 2018 Burleigh Media Ethics lecture at Marquette University. As accusations of sexual abuse have continued to dominate headlines, there have been questions about how these accusations are verified. 

For the reporting staff at Indystar, this was a complicated undertaking, in part because Nassar was the team doctor. Nassar claimed that his procedures were for medical purposes, and the journalists at Indystar had to check out those claims. They started by having the victims recount the incidents with Nassar, then they approached osteopathic doctors to see if these procedures seemed legitimate. 

"Many of those doctors told us, 'Well, there are some red flags there. He wasn't wearing gloves, he wasn't adequately warning them that he was going to be doing things near their genitals, he was sometimes alone with them.'"

"Many of those doctors told us, 'Well, there are some red flags there. He wasn't wearing gloves, he wasn't adequately warning them that he was going to be doing things near their genitals, he was sometimes alone with them.' And those were red flags," Berta explains. 

He says for many of the reporters who had become close to their sources, those red flags seemed like enough. But Berta wasn't satisfied with that as proof, which resulted in some "interesting discussions" within the group of journalists. 

"I felt that what we needed was someone to describe the procedure and say what the treatment was supposed to cure and ask doctors if that sounded like a legitimate procedure for that particular ailment," he says. "And I felt that was a standard of proof that would be much stronger for us, and it was hard to get because doctors don't want to second guess each other. Eventually, we found some experts who said, 'No, that sounds like straight-up sexual abuse.'" 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.