Marisa Kwiatkowski details groundbreaking Nassar investigation

by Dakota Palmer

March 4, 2019

Investigative journalist talks about reporting on the USA Gymnastics scandal during talk on Feb. 28

Marisa Kwiatkowski
Marisa Kwiatkowski spoke at the Newhouse School Feb. 28 Photo by Hieu Nguyen

In front of an intimate crowd at the Newhouse School, investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski of the Indianapolis Star discussed her reporting on sexual abuse in the USA Gymnastics organization that ultimately led to the downfall of Dr. Larry Nassar, the team’s doctor and a physician at Michigan State University.

“You focus on what you can control, and I can’t control what people do with the information I’m giving them,” Kwiatkowski said. “What I can control is exposing a problem and telling people why they should care.”

In a conversation with Professor Jodi Upton, Kwiatkowski detailed how she and two other reporters—Mark Alesia and Tim Evans—spent months interviewing sexual abuse victims, researching documents and gathering facts that led to the initial Aug. 4, 2016, article exposing USA Gymnastics’ failure to report allegations of sexual abuse.

Since the 2016 article, more than 500 victims have come forward saying they were abused by Nassar. Michigan State officials have since been charged with failure to report allegations.

Kwiatkowski said her initial assignment was to cover failures to report sexual abuse in schools. A source told her to look into USA Gymnastics and how its leadership handled sexual abuse allegations. The source told her a judge was about to seal court documents from USA Gymnastics cases, so Kwiatkowski flew to Georgia, where a former gymnast filed a lawsuit against her coach, the same day and picked up almost 1,000 pages of records.

“What was unique about this investigation is that these records showed that USA Gymnastics executives had a policy of not reporting all allegations of sexual abuse to authorities,” Kwiatkowski said. “The three of us set out to find out how often this policy came into play and the impact of that policy on the safety of kids in the sport.”

Kwiatkowski said interviewing the abuse victims was difficult, and that she made sure to avoid retraumatizing them through careful communication, thoroughly explaining what she was writing about and letting the victims ask her questions.

“Keeping that open line of communication and making sure they understand why you’re asking the things you are [asking] and really just helping make them comfortable [is important],” she said. “The last thing we want to do as journalists is traumatize someone further or put them in an uncomfortable position.”

After the initial piece on Nassar came out, USA Gymnastics claimed it had reported him to authorities and suspended him from his duties immediately. Upon further research, Kwiatkowski’s team found that USA Gymnastics had actually waited five weeks, and in that period had conducted its own investigation.

“For the first year, we weren’t sure anything with the organization was going to change,” she said. “It really wasn’t until Nassar’s sentencing, when all of the survivors were testifying and giving their statements before the court, that you started to see change being pushed by the organization.”

After the Indy Star’s initial reporting, more victims of abuse came forward against Nassar.

  • In July 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in a Michigan state prison. In early 2018, he was sentenced to 60 years in a federal prison and an additional 40 to 125 years in state prison.
  • Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis, who allegedly failed to report cases of sexual misconduct, resigned in 2018. Later that year, Simon was charged with lying to Michigan State Police about her knowledge of the abuse.
  • USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny was arrested in October 2018 for tampering with evidence.
  • Interim USA Gymnastics president Mary Bono resigned after four days due to heavy criticism of her association with the law firm that advised USA Gymnastics during the scandal.
  • In November 2018, the United States Olympic Committee began working to decertify USA Gymnastics, and a month later, USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy.
  • In January 2019, Michigan State ousted interim president John Engler after he said the victims were enjoying the spotlight. That same month, the university agreed to pay $500 million to Nassar’s victims.

Upton said Kwiatkowski’s work on the Nassar investigation has opened the floodgates on other investigations of sexual abuse in youth sports, such as a February 2018 investigative report from the Orange County Register that claimed USA Swimming covered up hundreds of sexual abuse cases.

“I wanted to dig into things and systems to get at the truth,” Kwiatkowski said of her interest in investigative journalism. “I wanted to hopefully effect change, [and] make people’s lives better. It comes down to wanting to expose wrongdoing and make a difference.”

Dakota Palmer is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.