Spurred by USA Gymnastics scandal, senators roll out bill to reform the FBI’s handling of child abuse victims

NBC News [New York NY]

September 22, 2022

By Sarah Fitzpatrick

A bipartisan group of senators is introducing new legislation Thursday aimed at improving the way the FBI interacts with underage victims and witnesses in sex abuse and trafficking cases.

The Respect for Child Survivors Act is the latest effort by Congress to address the FBI’s failures in its handling of the Larry Nassar investigation.

The former USA Gymnastics doctor is serving decades in prison for abusing underage athletes over several years. The FBI knew about the allegations in 2015 but failed to act, allowing him to continue to prey on gymnasts and other minors for more than a year.

“It takes tremendous courage for young victims of sexual assault to tell their story and overcome the fear that they may not be taken seriously, may be ignored, or may be wrongfully blamed,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the bill’s sponsors.

“To avoid re-traumatizing victims during the investigation process, it’s imperative we give these individuals the support they need to ensure survivors feel respected during the interview process and abusers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Cornyn said the bill was inspired by the testimony of former Olympic team gymnast McKayla Maroney, who described in wrenching detail how she was treated by FBI agents during interviews about Nassar’s abuse.

“They had legal, legitimate evidence of child abuse and did nothing,” McKayla said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September 2021.

The legislation would require the FBI to use multidisciplinary teams with trauma expertise when investigating child sexual abuse and trafficking cases, including in situations where the victim being interviewed is no longer a child. The bill would also include new case review provisions designed to ensure that cases are not dropped or stalled in the way the Nassar investigation was.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment but pointed to remarks FBI director Christopher Wray made to Congress last year following testimony from Maroney and other gymnasts.

“I’m especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in in 2015 and failed, ” Wray said. “And that’s inexcusable. It never should have happened. And we’re doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. It was written with input from child welfare groups, including the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, the National District Attorneys Association, Army of Survivors and the National Children’s Alliance.

NBC News has previously reported that the Justice Department is in negotiations to settle over $1 billion in federal tort claims against the FBI from the more than 100 alleged victims of Nassar.

Among those suing are Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Maroney. The majority of the claimants allege that they were abused by Nassar after his abuse was reported to the FBI, during the year-long period in which the agency took no meaningful investigative action.