Ohio State Knew About Sexual Abuse By Richard Strauss As Early As 1979
The Ohio State University failed to properly respond to evidence of sexual abuse by team doctor Richard Strauss for almost two decades, according to a redacted investigative report released Friday.
"We find that University personnel had knowledge of Strauss' sexually abusive treatment of male student-patients as early as 1979, but that complaints and reports about Strauss' conduct were not elevated beyond the Athletics Department or Student Health until 1996," the report reads.
The report, more than a year in the making, was compiled by the outside law firm Perkins Coie at the request of the school. It found Strauss "sexually abused at least 177 male student-patients he was charged with treating as a University physician" during his tenure at the school from 1978-1998.
The investigation includes accounts of Ohio State students who were under the age of 18 and allegations of abuse of high school and grade school-aged children.
Despite being disciplined by the school over multiple sexual abuse complaints, Strauss voluntarily retired in 1998, receiving an "emeritus" honor that he maintained until his death. Strauss died by suicide in 2005.
"We find that there were multiple people who over many, many years failed to meet their minimum responsibilities to ensure student safety, and this is inexplicable and inexcusable in my book," said University President Michael Drake in an interview Friday.
At least 50 students have filed lawsuits against Ohio State, arguing the university knew about and declined to act in response to complaints about Strauss. Their case is headed to mediation.
“It’s what we’ve been saying—they’ve failed to act—investigate or act, and now we have validation,” said Brian Garrett, one of the lead plaintiffs, in an interview Friday.
The university has referred the report to Columbus Police, the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office, and the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
Strauss On Campus
Complaints of abuse by Strauss began as soon as he stepped on campus.
"As early as 1979, personnel in the University's Sports Medicine program and Athletics Department were aware that Strauss was conducting genital examinations on male athletes there were unusually prolonged, and that Strauss refused to allow athletic training staff to be present for these protracted genital examinations," the report says.
For two decades, male students complained that Strauss performed routine and "seemingly medically unnecessary" genital exams, regardless of the patients' condition.
“Strauss' acts of abuse ranged from the overt – such as fondling to the point of erection and ejaculation – to more subtle acts of abuse that were masked with a pretextual medical purpose - for example, requiring a student-patient to strip completely naked to purportedly 'assess' an orthopedic condition, or asking probing questions about a student-patient's sexual practices or performance," the report says.
The report found sexual abuse against students "escalated over time" as patients returned for several investigations. Investigators say the pattern was consistent with the practice of "grooming," in which sex abusers gain trust, establish control and create an environment of secrecy and isolation.
"In two cases, Strauss' abuse escalated to the degree that he performed unwanted sex acts on student-athletes in an exam setting, including putting his mouth on the student's penis to perform oral sex," the report states.
In total, investigators found 177 firsthand accounts of sexual abuse by Strauss. Another 38 people reported an "abusive experience" with an Ohio State physician during that time, but could not positively identify Strauss.
For almost 20 years, reports against the doctor went unanswered.
"Despite the persistence, seriousness, and regularity of such complaints, no meaningful action was taken by the University to investigate or address the concerns until January 1996, following a cluster of student complaints that arose in the mid-1990s," the report states.
The investigation names several high-level Ohio State officials who received reports about Strauss' misconduct. Among them were head team physicians John Lombardo and Bob Murphy.
The investigation says Murphy started fielding complaints about Strauss as early as the 1979-1980 school year, when one student trainer reportedly told Murphy about witnessing Strauss perform several inappropriate exams.
In 1994, Lombardo wrote a letter to then-Associate Athletic Director Paul Krebs addressing concerns raised by the fencing coach about unnecessary genital exams from STrauss. Lombardo declined to participate in the investigation, but in the letter, he said he spoke with the fencing coach and decided “her concerns are based on rumors which have been generated for 10 years with no foundation.”
An athletic trainer reported telling Lombardo in the early 1990s that it was inappropriate for Strauss to be showering with student-athletes.
In 1996, the university suspended Strauss from physician duties after a patient at the Student Health accused Strauss of "fondling him during a genital examination." At the time, though, the school took a "very limited investigation" of complaints against Strauss, including a closed-session disciplinary hearing where only Strauss, his attorney and university officials were invited to participate.
None of Strauss' students or patients were given the chance to appear.
As a result of that hearing, Strauss was removed from both Student Health Services and the Athletics Department. However, he was allowed to remain a tenured faculty member in the School of Public Health, which did not conduct its own investigation.
Even after the disciplinary actions, in 1996 Strauss opened a private, off-campus clinic where he "continued to sexually abuse OSU students," the report says. His practice was approved by the Associate Vice President of Health Services and Academic Affairs, who was aware at the time that Strauss was being investigated by Student Affairs.
Over his last two years on campus, Strauss attempted to overturn the disciplinary actions and be reinstated as a physician. Despite appealing his case to the Office of the University President, Strauss was unable to challenge the ruling.
Strauss annnounced his retirement in October 1997. The Acting Director of the School of Public Health recommended he receive an emeritus status "based on his long-standing service, commitment, and national and international achievements," a recommendation backed by an Associate Vice President.
Both the Acting Director and Associate Vice President knew that Strauss was disciplined for allegations of sexual misconduct. The report found, however, that the Dean of the College of Medicine and Public Health "had not approved" Strauss' status and was not told about it until after it was finalized by the Board of Trustees.
By then, it was a done deal: Strauss would remain an emeritus professor until his death in 2005.
Ohio State announced on April 5, 2018, it began looking into allegations against Strauss. Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, the Columbus law firm that represents the university, retained the Seattle firm Perkins Coie LLP to conduct an independent investigation.
At the time, the university said allegations recently emerged against Strauss and that it had notified law enforcement.
Beginning with ex-wrestler Mike DiSabato, dozens of men filed separate lawsuits against Ohio State for failing to take action against Strauss, claiming the school knew about and declined to act on reports of abuse. DiSabato said he was spurred to come forward publicly after seeing parallels in the Michigan State University scandal that sent former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to prison.
According to the report, one point of the independent investigation was to evaluate allegations that Strauss committed acts of sexual misconduct against people from the Ohio State community during his employment. Another was to determine whether Ohio State had knowledge of Strauss’ behavior during the relevant time period.
“We were explicitly retained to only reach factual findings, and not to draw legal conclusions,” Perkins Coie states in the report. “Relatedly, we were not asked to assess or otherwise provide recommendations to the University regarding its current or historical policies, procedures, or practices related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.”
Former federal prosecutor Markus Funk and former federal government ethics attorney Caryn Trombino led the investigative team, which interviewed 520 witnesses, including accusers, other former students, former and current employees, and more. The report says Ohio State cooperated in the investigative team’s efforts to look through records and contact former employees.
It also notes that the report “does not describe every allegation, witness account, or documentary record that we identified in the Independent Investigation,” but rather highlights what the team determined to be the most crucial pieces of evidence.
The report has some information redacted, as well. Names of survivors have been ommitted, as are records from a State Medical Board investigation into Strauss, which ultimately did not lead to any discipline. Ohio State pushed in court to include those records, which the Medical Board sought to keep private, but was denied by a federal judge.
In an emailed statement, Drake said the report concludes university officials at the time "failed to investigate or act meaningfully."
"Strauss' actions and the university's inaction at the time were unacceptable," Drake writes. "On behalf of Ohio State, we offer our profound regret and sincere apologies to each person who endured Strauss' abuse."
Ohio State announced Friday it has initiated the process of revoking Strauss' emeritus status. The university has also offered to reimburse the costs of professional counseling for survivors.
"It is our collective responsibility to remain ever-vigilant and work to ensure that this can never happen again," Drake said.
This is a breaking news story. It will be updated with more information.
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