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Lack of evidence shouldn't mean sex predators automatically walk

• Feb 6, 2018 at 3:30 PM

Gut-wrenching stories from 265 women detailing sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar shouldn't have been the linchpin for taking down this serial predator. The system failed because the voices of individual victims weren't enough to get the attention of the elite gymnastics organization, the U.S. Olympic Committee or Michigan State University, where he practiced.

As long as it was one victim's word against Nassar's, the legal benefit of the doubt always went to him because his accusers lacked evidence of the crimes he committed. That's how he could continue abusing for decades.

Congress passed legislation on Monday requiring athletic organizations to report sexual abuse allegations within 24 hours to law enforcement and to establish preventive policies. The legislation should be expanded to include colleges and universities, religious institutions, some secular organizations and the military.

When assault is reported decades after it occurred, investigators rarely have forensic evidence to work with, making such cases difficult to prove in court. If authorities had properly recorded and tracked the allegations of Nassar's child victims in the 1990s, when they began telling adults what the doctor was doing to them, prosecution might have happened much sooner, preventing him from destroying countless other lives.

The nation has been gripped by sexual abuse scandals for years, including cases in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. The trickle became a torrent last year with men in the media, politics and the entertainment industry stepping down or being fired in the face of allegations. The #MeToo movement expanded the conversation and focused on the best ways to hold perpetrators responsible and to stop the cycle of predatory sexual abuse.

In 2015, the University of Missouri was rocked by a scandal in which a university swimmer alleged Mizzou football players raped her in 2010. The swimmer committed suicide in 2011. The university did not report the case to local law enforcement until 2014. Police said they lacked forensic and video evidence of the assault and closed their investigation the following year.

Currently, Mizzou's Title IX office, which investigates sex discrimination and violence on campus, is reviewing allegations against suspended basketball player Terrence Phillips. At St. Louis University, three basketball players have been suspended and one expelled after a sexual assault investigation by the school's Title IX office.

But Michigan State University's Title IX office cleared Nassar of wrongdoing after a 2014 investigation. Clearly, Title IX investigations can't be relied upon to yield consistent justice. Law enforcement must investigate allegations. Elite organizations tend to perpetuate the culture of silence that allows these crimes to continue.

A crime without evidence doesn't mean no crime has been committed. These cases belong in the hands of properly trained law enforcement investigators, not Title IX officers.

— ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH (TNS)

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