New lawsuit claims Bela and Martha Karolyi ignored abuse of gymnasts
USA Gymnastics has failed to report to police many allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches. That allowed predatory coaches to continue working with children for years after the organization was warned. Robert Scheer/IndyStar
LOS ANGELES — A former elite gymnast filed a lawsuit Thursday against USA Gymnastics and some of its top officials, claiming former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi fostered a toxic, abusive environment that enabled a team doctor to sexually abuse underage gymnasts.
The suit claims USA Gymnastics and the Karolyis, who are one of the most successful coaching teams in gymnastics history, concealed sexual and physical abuses at their elite training facility in Texas to protect their reputations and businesses.
The unnamed plaintiff was a member of the U.S. Women's National Team from 2006 to 2011 and was a world team member in 2010. She said she was sexually abused by former team physician Dr. Larry Nassar over several years.
The lawsuit filed in California accuses the Karolyis, USA Gymnastics, President Steve Penny, former President Robert Colarossi, California-based All Olympia Gymnastics Center and its owners Galina Marinova and Artur Akopyan of ignoring abuse and failing to protect the plaintiff at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. The lawsuit also was filed against Nassar.
In a statement issued Thursday, USA Gymnastics denied the allegations against it.
"As we have made clear, when USA Gymnastics first learned of athlete concerns regarding Dr. Nassar, we dismissed him from further involvement and reported those concerns to the FBI," the organization said. "Still, the allegations that have been made are troubling. USA Gymnastics is committed to promoting a safe environment for our athletes. Due to the pending litigation and ongoing investigation, however, we are unable to comment further.”
Calls seeking comment from Nassar, the Karolyis and the All Olympia Gymnastics Center were not immediately returned Thursday.
More than 30 people have accused Nassar of sexual abuse since an IndyStar report in September detailed allegations made against him.
Nassar, who served as USA Gymnastics' team physician during four Olympic Games, has not been criminally charged. He left his position with USA Gymnastics last fall with little public notice and was fired from Michigan State University after IndyStar's report.
The FBI, MSU police and the Michigan attorney general's office are investigating Nassar's conduct.
One of the doctor's attorneys, Matt Newburg, previously denied wrongdoing by his client, saying Nassar's techniques are "medically accepted and appropriate."
The attorney for the woman behind the new lawsuit disagrees.
"These children and young women sacrificed their childhood and adolescence to compete for their country and win medals for our country," said California attorney John Manly, who filed the lawsuit. "They are in many ways the best our country has to offer and many of them were severely mistreated and sexually abused. And instead of being healthy, happy adults, many are simply hollowed out and barely able to function because of what occurred under the Karolyis' supervision and because of Dr. Nassar. It's inexcusable, and we intend to hold them accountable."
The Karolyis, who are members of the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, developed 28 U.S. Olympians, nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions and six national champions, according to a 2014 news release. Earlier this year, the women's team earned another nine Olympic medals — the most won by any nation since 1972.
The couple have operated the Ranch since the 1980s. The facility has been the women’s program’s official team training center since 2000, and designated as its U.S. Olympic team site since 2011, according to USA Gymnastics.
The California lawsuit claims the Karolyis created an oppressive, abusive environment at the Ranch that included scratching children until they bled, depriving them of food and water, screaming obscenities and encouraging parents to hit their children, according to court records. The suit alleges that environment enabled Nassar to "groom" children by sneaking them food and acting as their friend in order to sexually abuse them.
The lawsuit claims the Karolyis “turned a blind-eye to the sexual abuse being perpetrated” by Nassar, who in turn kept quiet about the couple’s “regime of fear, intimidation, and physical and emotional abuse” of young gymnasts.
Martha Karolyi retired earlier this year from her position as the women's national team coordinator. She was replaced by two-time Olympic champion Valeri Liukin, who is co-founder and owner of the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas.
USA Gymnastics announced in July that it purchased the Karolyi Ranch, although property records indicate the Karolyis still own it. The Indianapolis-based organization also is facing two other lawsuits, one in California and the other in Georgia, that allege negligence by officials of the sport's national governing body.
The previous California lawsuit, filed in September by a former Olympic medalist, claims USA Gymnastics hid complaints about Nassar and failed to adequately supervise his activities. That suit, also filed by Manly, contends the Indianapolis-based organization violated its own standards of conduct by allowing the doctor to examine the gymnast alone in private rooms.
The lawsuit claims Nassar "would do anal and vaginal examinations of Plaintiff and other gymnasts in the care of (USA Gymnastics) without gloves, a chaperone, and/or any form of lubricant." It also alleges the doctor talked to the California gymnast about sex, describing oral sex and telling her that other underage gymnasts were doing it.
The unrelated Georgia case claims USA Gymnastics officials ignored at least four prior warnings about alleged sexual misconduct involving former coach William McCabe. That failure to intervene, the suit says, allowed McCabe to continue coaching for about seven more years.
The "Jane Doe" lawsuit in Georgia was filed in 2013 by a former gymnast who was secretly videotaped by McCabe while she was changing clothes.
McCabe was arrested in 2006 after the plaintiff's mother found disturbing emails on her daughter's computer and went to the FBI. He pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of children and making false statements to investigators, and is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison.
This isn’t the first time the Karolyis have been accused of abusing athletes.
In 2008, former Olympian Dominique Moceanu alleged she had been verbally and emotionally abused by Bela and Martha Karolyi while at the Ranch.
Moceanu, a member of the 1996 Olympic gold medal team dubbed the “Magnificent Seven,” called for the couple to be removed from their positions with the sport’s national governing body. But her pleas failed to prompt action from USA Gymnastics, and drew criticism from some other gymnasts.
In a written statement today to IndyStar, Moceanu said she remains concerned about athlete safety and has “tremendous respect and admiration for these brave women coming forward to share their stories.”
“It's not easy to stand up to a powerful system that holds all the cards,” said Moceanu, the youngest U.S. gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal. “But at the end of the day, it is essential — and a priority close to my heart — that our athletes are safe and protected. If system changes need to be made for that to happen, then they can't come soon enough."
Call IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.
Call IndyStar reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.
Call IndyStar reporter Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.
Share your experiences
IndyStar will continue to investigate this topic. If you have information you would like to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (317) 444-6262.
Anyone who has reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected should immediately call police or the child welfare agency. Survivors of sexual abuse can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 or online.rainn.org. For resources or more information on the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, visit https://www.rainn.org/.