Former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny had concerns about convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar as early as 2013 and was aware of a "code of silence" within the organization, according to documents discussed during a congressional hearing Tuesday.
Penny was one of three witnesses at a subcommittee hearing held Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. Senate's ongoing efforts to examine sexual abuse issues within Olympic sports. The committee sent him a subpoena compelling him to appear. Penny, who resigned in March of 2017 amid the mounting pressure of the Nassar scandal, invoked his Fifth Amendment right while declining to answer any questions from senators at the hearing.
"In the absence of your testimony documents will speak for you," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of two congressmen leading the subcommittee.
Former gymnast Amy Moran, who says she reported her own abuse to Penny, screamed "Shame!" after Penny was excused by the panel.
Blumenthal said their probe uncovered a memo that Penny sent to the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance in 2013 that said, in part, "If Larry Nassar is the gatekeeper then we have a real issue." Blumenthal asked Penny for an explanation, but did not provide any additional context about the memo.
The senator also said that an email between Nassar and current USA Gymnastics CEO Ron Galimore referenced a "code of silence" and noted that Penny was aware of the code that, according to Blumenthal, "prevented young athletes from coming forward and complaining about abuse with fear of retaliation."
Galimore and Penny were both involved in keeping word about Nassar's abuse under wraps when he was first investigated by USA Gymnastics in the summer of 2015. Penny allegedly instructed gymnasts and coaches within the organization not to discuss their concerns about Nassar with anyone else. According to emails first obtained by the Indianapolis Star, Galimore was one of the high-ranking USA Gymnastics officials who relayed false excuses to explain why Nassar was missing from multiple meets that summer.
Nassar was allowed to retire from his volunteer position at USA Gymnastics in September 2015. He continued to see patients at his clinic on Michigan State's campus for another year before he was arrested and eventually convicted of crimes that landed him a prison sentence of up to 175 years.
Penny first learned about the 2015 complaints from Rhonda Faehn, who was in charge of the women's program at USA Gymnastics at the time. Faehn, who was also at Tuesday afternoon's congressional hearing, said she told Penny about the complaints in June of 2015. She did not tell anyone else.
"He told me not to say anything or do anything because he was going to handle everything going forward," Faehn said Tuesday. "He told me he was going to report the concerns to the proper authorities, which I assumed included law enforcement."
Penny eventually reported the complaints to the FBI in late July of that summer, nearly six weeks after speaking with Faehn. She said she was never interviewed by the FBI and did not speak to any law enforcement officials until last month, when she was interviewed by the Texas Rangers as part of an investigation into abuse at the former USA Gymnastics training site at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Faehn was fired from USA Gymnastics last month. She says she has been "falsely blamed for the alleged deficiencies of USAG."
Faehn and Penny were joined in D.C. by former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon. Faehn and Simon both apologized to survivors of Nassar's abuse as part of opening statements read at the hearing.
"Not a day goes by without me wishing that he had been caught and punished sooner," said Simon, who remains a professor and president emeritus at Michigan State. "And not a day goes by without me wondering what we missed and what could have been done to detect his evil before a former youth gymnast filed her complaint with the MSU Police in 2016."
Simon was criticized by several of the women abused by Nassar in the 16 months that followed his arrest for appearing to care more about the school's legal culpability and potential financial exposure in civil lawsuits than about the welfare of the women that a former university employee abused.
She said Tuesday that one lesson she took away from the experience was to "lower the barrier for when I react with my gut" rather than thinking only about abiding by the policy and procedure that would protect her or the school from legal issues. She said the fear of being wrong when making accusations about sexual assault presents a major impediment for institutions in handling these issues in a compassionate and appropriate way.
Simon resigned under pressure in January during the week of Nassar's first sentencing hearing for his sexual assault crimes.
Michigan State settled civil lawsuits with more than 300 plaintiffs last month by agreeing to pay $500 million. USA Gymnastics, Penny and the U.S. Olympic Committee are also being sued, along with other parties, by hundreds who says they were abused by Nassar. A current USA Gymnastics official said they hope to return to settlement negotiations for those lawsuits later this summer.
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