Former female gymnasts accuse doctor of molesting them during treatment

Dr. Larry Nassar was charged Thursday with 22 counts of criminal sexual conduct.

ByABC News
February 24, 2017, 4:16 PM

— -- For young gymnasts with Olympic dreams, Dr. Larry Nassar was considered to be the best. But now, athletes from around the country are coming forward saying he sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment.

Nassar was charged Thursday in Michigan with 22 counts of criminal sexual conduct, five of which, according to prosecutors, relate to victims who were under 13 years old. The charges relate to Nassar’s time when he was a faculty member at Michigan State University, from 1997 to when the university says he was fired in 2016 after allegations surfaced. He has pleaded not guilty.

“This guy is despicable, this guy is disgusting, and he’s a monster,” Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, told reporters at Nassar’s hearing.

While he was on staff at Michigan State, Nassar was the chief medical coordinator of the USA Women’s gymnastics team for a period of 19 years, and now, many of the athletes he treated are coming forward with allegations, saying they were so young when he abused them that they didn't understand what he was doing.

Former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher, one of Nassar’s accusers, took home the bronze medal for Team USA at the 2000 Olympic Games. She said she believed Nassar "was helping me get to my Olympic dream, something I was dreaming about since I was 3 years old. ... I didn’t even question it.”

She said she met Nassar when she made the Olympic team and sought treatment for back pain.

“When he first did the ‘procedure,’ as we’ll call it, I was either 13 or 14,” she said. “He used to do a lot of soft tissue massages. ... He said, ‘There is a procedure,’ or a way to get my hips back into alignment and then he would put his fingers into me vaginally.”

Dantzscher claims that at another point, Nassar touched her breasts underneath her t-shirt.

“I don’t know how I wasn’t uncomfortable,” she added. “But just being a kid and being a little girl and being in such an intense environment I was so miserable because I felt like I got in trouble every day for something else. I had no idea back then that he was doing something wrong.”

Jessica Howard, another one of Nassar’s accusers, said she first met him at the famed Karolyi Ranch, a Houston-based elite Olympics training center, when she was 15 years old after she had finished the World Championships. She said she was visiting the camp to seek treatment from Nassar.

“Through most of that year, I had extreme hip pain, like to the point where I would wake up in the morning, unable to walk,” she said.

Howard described what she said happened during one of her treatment sessions with Nassar.

“I just remember he asked me not to wear underwear and to wear loose shorts and I thought that was a little bit weird,” Howard said. “He began massaging kind of my quads and my IT-bands [tissue on the outside of the thigh] and then he got closer and closer, you know, to a more intimate areas and then he penetrated me.”

Howard said he never said anything to her during that alleged incident.

“I remember feeling rigid on the table, just very uncomfortable,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s happening?’ I was the most innocent 15-year-old you could find. I was so trusting. It didn’t even go through my head that this man could be hurting me.”

More than 60 women and girls have filed complaints against Nassar. Some like Dantzscher are also suing Bela and Marta Karolyi, gymnastics coaches and owners of the Karolyi ranch, saying they created an environment at their ranch that gave Nassar the opportunity to abuse young gymnasts.

“They created an atmosphere of fear and control,” Dantzscher said. “We weren’t really allowed to talk. They controlled what we ate, they controlled when we spoke.”

“He was very nice and he was on the gymnast’s side about what you were going through,” Howard added. “So, he was kind of a break from all of the endless negativity on a daily basis.”

Many are now asking questions about how the doctor had so much access to some of the most elite young athletes in the country for so many years.

“We’re on the elite national team, we’re training at the world and the Olympic level, your parents don’t go with you,” Dantzscher said. “They trusted USA Gymnastics to make sure that they were protecting us. Dr. Nassar was in my room, late at night, giving me treatment in my own bed.”

California attorney John Manly represents many of the accusers, including Dantzscher and Howard, and said Nassar would try to appear as someone the young women could confide in.

“Dr. Nassar wasn’t just alone with these girls, he was alone with them in their sleeping quarters, not just at the ranch but at venues all over the world when they went to compete,” Manly said. “What Nassar did is came in with a sunny personality, 'I’m a nice man, you can trust me,’ gave the kids candy, listened to their problems and they liked him and they trusted him, and he used that trust to disguise sexual assault as medical treatment.”

A spokesman for the Karolyis told ABC News that they “deny the existence of a ‘toxic’ environment,” and that the Karolyis say they “were never aware that Dr. Nassar would be performing any procedures which are now the subject of the present litigation.”

Dantzscher's lawsuit, like some others, names USA Gymnastics as well, claiming they also failed to protect them.

In a statement to ABC News, USA Gymnastics said they were “outraged that a physician would exploit his patient in the alleged manner” and reiterated that they dismissed Nassar when they learned of the accusations and reported him to the FBI.

Both Dantzscher and Howard said it took them years to come to grips with what they say Nassar did to them and to decide to speak out. Howard said she’s not sure she could ever face him again.

“But I find strength in the fact that there are so many others that have come forward and I believe that together we could face him easily and show him that we are not victims anymore, we are not innocent children, and we can fight back now,” Howard said.

Dantzscher said she has six nieces and many of them do gymnastics so she wanted to come forward to help protect them.

“I couldn’t live with the fact that this could happen to them,” she said, “If I didn’t say anything, I just couldn’t live with that.”

The Michigan attorney general says his team will be seeking the longest possible sentence against Nassar. Each first-degree charge is punishable by up to life in prison.

“I want him to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Howard said. “The number of people that have come forward, the things that he’s done, are reprehensible, an affront to basic human rights, and I believe that he deserves to be punished for what he’s done.”

Nassar will also have to face several civil lawsuits, including those brought by Dantzscher and Howard.

“When somebody sacrifices their childhood and their adolescence to compete for their country in the Olympic games and we watch them and we see those smiles, I want people to know and they want people to know that behind those smiles in some instances is a tremendous amount of pain that shouldn’t be there,” Manly said. “And the adults in charge of USA Gymnastics are responsible for that.”

ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report