Jim Dey: Is disbelief costly? You better believe it

Jim Dey: Is disbelief costly? You better believe it

Yesterday, it was Graham Spanier. Once the most highly regarded university president in the Big Ten, Spanier was not only fired from his prestigious job at Penn State as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child-rape scandal, he did a stint in jail.

Today, it's Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon. Trying to dodge the fallout of a similar scandal, she's hanging on to her job with bloody fingernails.

Who will it be tomorrow? It's inevitable it will be someone because, well, there always is.

Spanier, Simon and others are examples of what happens when people can't bring themselves to put any credence in an allegation they can't afford to ignore.

The "I can't believe it" syndrome happened in the Urbana schools system in 2007, when administrators didn't place any credibility on concerns that one of their grade school teachers, John White, was involved in inappropriate sexual activities with students.

Police ultimately ferreted out the details school officials didn't — and shouldn't have tried to — uncover. White ended up in prison, public confidence was shaken, careers were scarred and lawsuits were filed.

The Penn State scandal blew up in 2011.

The same thing is happening now at Michigan State, where former school physician Dr. Larry Nassar faces a lengthy sentencing hearing in connection with his guilty plea for sexually molesting nine young female athletes referred to him for medical treatment.

The number of victims, however, apparently exceeds 100. Many of them have showed up in court to deliver powerful victim-impact statements during which they recounted their experiences with Dr. Nassar.

Now that people know what Dr. Nassar was up to, they're asking top officials on campus what they knew about the 54-year-old physician and when they knew it.

Needless to say, memories are fading fast as the relevant parties lawyer up in the face of more than 100 civil lawsuits filed against Dr. Nassar and MSU.

An effort by the school to find out what happened and reassure the public has raised, rather than allayed, suspicions.

MSU hired prominent Chicago lawyer Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney and a member of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, to look into the matter.

Fitzgerald ultimately gave MSU officials a clean bill of health, but subsequent events revealed that he submitted no written report for the public to examine.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office apparently will take another look.

Fitzgerald, however, summed up the situation in a letter to the attorney general.

"In the MSU matter, we believe the evidence will show that no MSU official believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in late summer 2016," wrote Fitzgerald, who said Dr. Nassar "fooled everyone."

The key word in Fitzgerald's explanation is "believed."

A Detroit News investigation revealed that "at least 14 Michigan State University representatives," including President Simon, received reports of misconduct by Dr. Nassar "in the two decades before his arrest." But no one was sufficiently moved to see that MSU police took an in-depth look. When they made cursory efforts, they turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.

For example, MSU's Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, acting on a sexual misconduct complaint, inquired but found nothing.

That failure demonstrates again how ill-advised universities are when they conduct their own investigations of what they consider campus rules violations but are really crimes.

The Nassar story is drawing nationwide attention because he was both an MSU physician and a physician with USA Gymnastics treating female members of the U.S. Olympic team.

Four top administrators of USA Gymnastics have been relieved of their duties as a consequence of the Nassar scandal.

Evidence showed that Dr. Nassar, under the guise of delivering what he touted as a special brand of medical treatment, touched his victims' bare breasts and penetrated them digitally.

Taking Dr. Nassar at his word, some patients received multiple treatments, on occasion with a parent present, according to news reports.

Others who were uncomfortable with Dr. Nassar's conduct tried to avoid seeing him again or raised questions about his conduct with medical trainers, family members and even law enforcement.

Dr. Nassar was able to talk himself out of trouble on several occasions by indicating his conduct was medically related. But the evidence shows that these incidents were isolated and that it took years before complaints about Dr. Nassar led to both federal and state criminal investigations.

Dr. Nassar was convicted in federal court on child pornography charges and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He faces up to up 40 years on his state case.

What's astounding in hindsight is how often those to whom the victims complained went to Dr. Nassar for an explanation, instead of calling the police.

In at least one case, a victim did go to police. They contacted Dr. Nassar and accepted his version of events rather than conducting a broader-based investigation that would have revealed the depth of what was happening.

But based on Dr. Nassar's lofty reputation, the unusual nature of the alleged misconduct, the scrutiny of individual stories rather than a broader inquiry and a general desire not to rock the boat, nothing happened even as the number of victims continued to grow.

Besides, those who were informed just couldn't believe what they were being told about Dr. Nassar, so they didn't. To their regret, they do now.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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Michael Ochoa wrote on February 07, 2018 at 4:02 pm
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First Penn, then MSU, next Pitt: