GVSU alumna Marisa Kwiatkowski returns to campus to discuss USA Gymnastics investigation
GV alumna Marisa Kwiatkowski returns to campus to discuss USA Gymnastics investigation
GVL / Emily Frye
Marisa Kwiatkowski talks about the role she played in breaking the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal on Monday, March 26, 2018.
“There’s this public perception of stranger danger, … but the vast majority of sexual abuse cases, the person knows their perpetrator; they know the person who’s doing it to them,” said Marisa Kwiatkowski, Grand Valley State University alumna and investigative reporter for The Indianapolis Star (IndyStar).
Kwiatkowski, alongside two of her colleagues, produced an immense investigation into USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar that has garnered national attention. On Monday, March 26, Kwiatkowski was welcomed back to GVSU to participate in two separate talks.
The earlier talk was held at 1 p.m. in the Linn Maxwell Keller Black Box Theatre. This event, part of the Robert Mayberry Comm-Unity Series, was co-moderated by multimedia journalism professor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and recent GVSU graduate Kelly Darcy. The session was formatted as an intimate Q&A, allowing students, staff and faculty alike to chat with Kwiatkowski.
Prior to receiving the tip on USA Gymnastics, Kwiatkowski had been working on an investigation in failures to report sexual abuse in schools. The same day she received the USA Gymnastics tip, she flew to Georgia to pick up almost a thousand pages of documents. What those documents showed was the USA Gymnastics policy in how they had, for many years, been handling allegations of sexual abuse.
According to Kwiatkowski, what her team found was that USA Gymnastics dismissed a lot of allegations of sexual abuse as hearsay unless those complaints were signed by a victim, a victim’s parent or an eyewitness of the abuse.
“If you know anything about sexual abuse, you know that first of all, there’s very, very rarely an eyewitness to the abuse that has happened and that it’s also incredibly rare to get a survivor who would be willing to come forward and sign documents, especially when you’re talking about in some cases an 8- or 9- or a 12-year-old gymnast,” Kwiatkowski explained.
The next step was finding out how often the USA Gymnastics policy came into play and what the impact of that policy was on the safety of the children in that sport. The team requested records from all over the country, got background information on hundreds of coaches nationwide and also connected with survivors face to face to hear their stories.
One of the things the team found was that USA Gymnastics had sexual misconduct files compiled for about 54 coaches in just under a 10-year period.
“In some cases they would get a complaint about a predatory coach, they would look at it, and they wouldn’t investigate it, they wouldn’t report it, they would just file it away into that system,” Kwiatkowski said.
The first story the team produced—which went through 13 different editors—was published in August of 2016 and was focused on the USA Gymnastics policy. Within hours of publication, the team received tons of emails from individuals alleging misconduct against various gymnastics officials.
However, one email in particular stood out: Rachael Denhollander explained that she wanted to share her story, but that the person who had abused her was not a coach, but rather a doctor, Larry Nassar.
Within a few weeks, the team received two more reports of allegations against Nassar. The first one was initially from a Jane Doe who has since become public, Olympic medalist Jamie Dantzscher, and then a third individual as well, who has now become public, Jessica Howard.
Kwiatkowski described Nassar as “a beloved figure in the sport of gymnastics” at the time they were looking into him. He was still working at Michigan State University, had never been charged, never been publicly accused, and was running for a local school board.
The first piece of the Nassar investigation was published Sept. 12, 2016, and within a few weeks of that, Kwiatkowski said, more than 20 other people came forward with allegations against Nassar. Today, more than 250 survivors have come forward to tell their stories.
“Larry Nassar didn’t just groom the survivors: He also groomed his entire environment around him,” Kwiatkowski said. “So he portrayed himself and really cultivated this image as this medical expert, this pelvic floor expert, and he was very deliberate about conveying this. … We’re talking about a guy who was known as 'the guy' for gymnastics sports medicine, and when you have somebody like that who’s telling you that this procedure is necessary for you to get relief from this pain you’re suffering from, for you to be able to compete in the sport that you love, they trusted him.”
In her time as a reporter, Kwiatkowski said, she naturally gravitated toward sharing stories of those who couldn’t share their own, who didn’t have a voice in the community, or whose voices weren’t being heard by people in the general public. This was a mentality she carried over in this particular investigation, in sharing the stories of the survivors.
“Many of the people that we interviewed had tried to tell someone before that something was wrong, and they were either discouraged from reporting or they were told that they had misunderstood his medical treatment, or in some cases they weren’t believed by various people they talked to,” Kwiatkowski said. “And so for us, it was important to up front explain exactly what we were working on, why we wanted to speak to them, how their stories would be used, and why we were going to be asking certain detailed questions about their experiences.
“I think you saw throughout this investigation and throughout that sentencing hearing the power of someone having a voice because there weren’t supposed to be 156 survivors that testified at that sentencing hearing, but every time that someone lent their voice and shared their story, it gave somebody else the strength to come forward and share their own.”
Another important voice heard during this event came from a parent of a survivor, Kristen Chatman.
“I was one of those parents, and my child was one of those children that didn’t realize what had happened to her," she said. "When the story first broke, I was very concerned and (thought) surely they must have made a mistake. … Throughout all the sentencing, hearing the stories, that’s when my daughter got her voice. … It took a voice to raise up other voices.”
Chatman believed that one point of view that was missing in this narrative was that of the parents. To remedy this, she wrote a letter that was then published in the IndyStar.
“There (were) so many vile statements being made about the parents, blaming the parents. … We were so blessed to have the best of the best in the state. How in the world can we now be the victims of blaming and shaming?" Chatman questioned. "Victims of betrayal, not victims of sexual assault personally, but I was betrayed—I entrusted my child to him. And so that point of view was a perspective that I hadn’t seen a lot of, so I wrote a letter. My recommendation: … Don’t be afraid to use your voice.”
As a result of the IndyStar investigation, Congress passed a bill making it a federal crime for national governing bodies to fail to immediately report sexual abuse allegations. On top of that, Nassar is now in prison, and the president and board of directors of USA Gymnastics have resigned.
“It’s important to know that as much as we talk about Larry Nassar and the attention that the Larry Nassar case has gotten, he is one guy and one example of a broader systemic problem,” Kwiatkowski said. “And so it’s really about how people are going to move forward, whether they’re going to report and how they’re going to handle these allegations when they come up, because they will come up.”
Kwiatkowski also emphasized that child sexual abuse is not a gymnastics-specific problem, nor a youth sports problem—it’s everywhere. As community members, Kwiatkowski believes we can change the narrative by both believing those who come forward with allegations and reporting incidents as required by law.
“I hope that we’re in a climate now and we’re moving forward as a society in a way that if you do come forward, that you will be believed and that there are people who want to hear what you have to say,” she said.
To view the full investigation, visit http://interactives.indystar.com/news/standing/OutOfBalanceSeries/index2.html.