Eighteen women and girls this week filed a lawsuit claiming Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics “failed to properly supervise” and protect them from sexual abuse by former USA gymnastics team physician Dr. Larry Nassar.
The plaintiffs — athletes from a variety of sports, including gymnastics, swimming, figure skating, track and field, field hockey, basketball and soccer — accused Nassar of sexual assault, battery, molestation and harassment, which he perpetrated under the guise of medical treatment or physical therapy between 1996 and 2016, according to the suit.
A majority of the plaintiffs were underage at the time of the alleged abuse. Some are still minors.
The suit, filed Tuesday, comes less than a month after Nassar was charged with two counts of receipt and attempted receipt of child pornography as well as one count of possession of child pornography, according to an indictment obtained by PEOPLE. A few weeks prior, Nassar was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting two underage gymnasts.
He has reportedly pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, and he has previously denied a civil suit accusing him of sexual abuse, according to the Orange County Register. His attorney said he did not have a comment.
Tuesday’s lawsuit against Nassar is the first civil action filed in federal court, following multiple others at the state level claiming he was sexually abusive. The 18 plaintiffs all filed under Jane Doe pseudonyms — except Rachael Denhollander, who told the IndyStar in 2016 that Nassar allegedly sexually assaulted her, massaging her breasts and penetrating her with his fingers, as she received treatment for back pain at the age of 15.
According to the suit, some of Nassar’s alleged sexual abuse occurred at Michigan State University, where he worked until he was fired in September, and during USA Gymnastics-sanctioned events at Gedderts’ Twistars in East Lansing, Michigan. (Twistars is also named as a defendant in the suit. Its representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.)
The complaint claims that USA Gymnastics, which is responsible for training and developing Olympic gymnastics teams, was “grossly negligent” for failing to notify Michigan State about its concerns regarding Nassar after he was let go by the institution in 2015.
In a statement to PEOPLE, the organization said, “When we first learned of athlete concerns regarding Dr. Nassar in the summer of 2015, we immediately notified the FBI and relieved him of any further assignments.”
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Nassar, who worked for USA Gymnastics for 29 years, was held “in high esteem and acclaim” by the organization, according to the suit. That helped give cover for his alleged acts, “[encouraging] Plaintiffs and others to respect and trust Defendant Nassar and seek out his services and to not question his methods or motives,” the complaint states.
What’s more, according to the suit, three women previously came forward to Michigan State to report their worries but the school did nothing. A university spokeswoman denied that to PEOPLE, saying, “MSU’s review has discovered no evidence that any individuals came forward to MSU with complaints about Nassar before Aug. 29, 2016,” except a 2014 complaint.
At a Tuesday news conference, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen Drew, said the purpose of the litigation was not financial but rather to “act as a mechanism to achieve institutional change and non-monetary concessions so that acts of sexual abuse like this will never happen again to young athletes and students.”
“Protecting them is more important than enhancing the reputation of the athletic system that invites their participation,” Drew told reporters. “Children are vulnerable because they trust, and once that trust and innocence is stolen it cannot be easily restored.”
Drew tells PEOPLE he will be filing complaints on behalf of two more people, both female minors, later this week. He says he hopes more come forward. “The fact that Rachael came public gave others the courage to come as well … and say, ‘ This happened to me,’ ” Drew says.
“Our clients and ourselves are hoping that as a part of this, we can have some serious institutional change with USA Gymnastics and with Michigan State,” he says, adding, “We hope that as a part of this, they start taking this more seriously — change the culture somewhat, put the appropriate policies and procedures in place. A lot of them do that, but you have to vigorously investigate and enforce them.”
Alleged Victim: ‘I Will Do Everything in My Power’ to Stop Nassar
Denhollander, who was 15 when she was treated by Nassar in 2000, was the first woman to come forward with allegations of abuse last year.
“The fear and shame in myself was my own misunderstanding,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “The reality of sexual abuse is that a pedophile is only as powerful as people around him allow him to be.”
She adds, “I will do everything in my power to make sure Larry Nassar is prosecuted for his crimes and can never harm another child.”
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According to the IndyStar, USA Gymnastics has “hired a former federal prosecutor to review its policies and handling of sexual abuse complaints.” The organization tells PEOPLE it cannot comment on pending litigation but said in a statement that it “finds the allegations against Dr. Nassar very disturbing.”
“USA Gymnastics has fully cooperated with the FBI in its investigation,” the statement continued. “We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and we are grateful to the athletes who have come forward.
Michigan State also said it could not comment on pending litigation, but tells PEOPLE it has initiated an internal review and that “the criminal investigation into Larry Nassar is a top priority for MSU Police.”
“We are deeply disturbed by the state and federal criminal charges against Larry Nassar,” the university said in a statement, “and our hearts go out to those directly affected.”