A now-dead Ohio State team doctor sexually abused at least 177 male students from the 1970s through the 1990s, and numerous university officials got wind of what was going on over the years but did little or nothing to stop him, according to a report released by the school Friday.
Dr. Richard Strauss groped or ogled young men while treating athletes from at least 16 sports and working at the student health centre and his off-campus clinic, investigators from a law firm hired by the university found.
“We are so sorry that this happened,” Ohio State President Michael Drake said at a news conference, using words like “shocking,” ”horrifying” and “heartbreaking” to describe the findings.
He said there was a “consistent institutional failure” at Ohio State, the nation’s third-largest university, with nearly 65,000 students and a half-million living alumni. The school “fell short of its responsibility to its students, and that’s regrettable and inexcusable.”
At the same time, Drake, who has led the institution since 2014, sought to distance Ohio State from what happened more than two decades ago: “This is not the university of today.”
The report on Strauss, who killed himself at age 67 in 2005 nearly a decade after he was allowed to retire with honours, could cost Ohio State dearly by corroborating lawsuits brought against it by a multitude of victims.
The findings put Strauss in a league with gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of Michigan State University, who was accused of molesting at least 250 women and girls and is serving what amounts to a life sentence. Michigan State ultimately settled with his victims for $500 million.
Similarly, the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal that brought down legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in 2011 has cost the university more than a quarter-billion dollars in settlements, fines, legal costs and other expenses.
The abuse at Ohio State went on from 1979 to 1997 and took place at various locations across campus, including examining rooms, locker rooms, showers and saunas, according to investigators. Strauss, among other things, contrived to get young men to strip naked and groped them sexually.
The report describes one patient who came in with strep throat. Strauss spent five minutes fondling his genitals and never examined another part of the body. Another victim had grown up in a rural area and had never had a proper medical exam; Strauss put a stethoscope on his penis.
Many told investigators that they thought his behaviour was an “open secret” and that they believed their coaches, trainers and other team doctors knew was going on. The students described the examinations as being “hazed” or going through a “rite of passage.” Athletes joked about Strauss’ behaviour, referring to him with nicknames like “Dr. Jelly Paws.”
The report concluded that scores of Ohio State personnel knew of complaints and concerns about Strauss’ conduct as early as 1979 but failed for years to investigate or take meaningful action.
Ohio State Provost Bruce McPheron said the report does not address whether anyone went to law enforcement at the time or was required to do so under the law back then.
In the wake of the findings, some of Strauss’ victims called on the university to take responsibility for its inaction and the harm inflicted by the doctor.
“Dreams were broken, relationships with loved ones were damaged, and the harm now carries over to our children, as many of us have become so overprotective that it strains the relationship with our kids,” Kent Kilgore said in a statement.
Steve Estey, an attorney for some of the former students who are suing, said: “If OSU refuses to take responsibility we will continue with civil litigation and put this in front of a jury for 12 people to judge their actions.”
No one has publicly defended Strauss, though family members have said they were shocked by the allegations.
At least 50 members of the athletic department staff, including many coaches, corroborated victims’ accounts of Strauss’ abuse, the report said. But students’ allegations never left the department or the health centre until 1996.
At that point, Strauss was investigated and let go as a team doctor and physician at the health centre but was allowed to retain his tenured faculty position.
Investigators said Strauss set up an off-campus clinic within months, receiving assurances from the associate vice-president of health sciences and academic affairs that “there would be no issue” with him engaging in part-time private practice while on the faculty. The abuse continued there.
He continued to plead for his job back as an on-campus doctor, finally going to then-President Gordon Gee with a letter in 1997. His pleas were rejected, at which point Strauss was allowed to retire with emeritus status, a mark of honour. Gee, now president of West Virginia University, said Friday he has no recollection of Strauss.
Former nursing student Brian Garrett said he briefly did administrative work at the off-campus clinic but stopped after witnessing abuse by Strauss and then experiencing it himself.
“I thought all along he hid that from the university,” Garrett said. “Now I find out they actually knew about the off-campus clinic, are you kidding me?” He added: “I’m mad. I thought I was mad before.”
The lawsuits against Ohio State are headed for mediation. They seek unspecified damages. Drake said the investigation alone has cost the school $6.2 million.
Separately, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is examining whether Ohio State responded promptly and fairly to students’ complaints. The department could cut the university’s federal funding if it is found to have violated civil rights protections.
Before Friday’s release, the doctor’s accusers had alleged that Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan was one of the coaches back then who were aware of suspicions about Strauss and didn’t stop him. Jordan, an assistant wrestling coach from 1987 to 1995, was not mentioned by name in the report, and a spokesman said the document showed the congressman did not know about the abuse.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo and Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Mitch Stacy in Columbus contributed to this report.
Kantele Franko And Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press