EDITORIAL: Way too soon for broad exonerations in Michigan State sexual abuse scandal

SHARE EDITORIAL: Way too soon for broad exonerations in Michigan State sexual abuse scandal
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Dr. Larry Nassar | Dale G.Young/Detroit News via AP

Even if you were talking about Eliot Ness, you’d want to consider who’s paying him.

At stake is a thorough investigation into one of our nation’s most sordid sexual abuse scandals.

EDITORIAL

We can assure the people of Michigan that Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois, is as straight a shooter as they’re going to find. He did a fine job of locking up our local mob bosses and crooked politicians for almost 12 years. We have no reason to doubt he’s playing it straight now as a lawyer for Michigan State University, home for decades to the disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar.

But there’s the rub: Michigan State is paying Fitzgerald. That will always make it difficult for the public to believe, no matter how big a Boy Scout Fitzgerald may be, that he has conducted an adequate internal university review of who knew what and when about Nassar.

Fitzgerald’s firm is pulling in $990 an hour.

A better course of action was presented on Saturday by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who announced he will launch a new investigation of Michigan State “from the president’s office on down.” Fitzgerald should turn over every bit of information he has collected, as Schuette has requested, and university officials would be foolish to stand in the way.

On Sunday, an attorney for more than 100 of Nassar’s victims accused the university of using Fitzgerald’s “well-deserved reputation” as an “Eliot Ness-type person” to shield itself from criticism. If that is an unfair shot, the best way to prove it would be for Fitzgerald and the university to cooperate fully with Schuette.

What’s on the line is not just the fate of a handful of top employees and board members at Michigan State. What’s really at risk is the university’s reputation for integrity for many years to come.

More broadly, every sexual abuse scandal now rocking the nation — whether at a university, in Hollywood or in Silicon Valley — requires industry-wide, institutional reform, not simply the drumming out of the worst offenders.

Our nation finds itself at a moment of transformative opportunity. It is not enough to call to account abusers such as Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby; we can change the culture that makes them possible.

Fitzgerald’s law firm and a second firm were hired to assist Michigan State in handling anticipated lawsuits in the wake of the Nassar scandal, according to reports, but also to help university officials cooperate with law enforcement. The firms were not hired to conduct a full-blown investigation, though inevitably they had to review — in Fitzgerald’s words — “the underlying facts.”

In a letter to Schuette last month, though, Fitzgerald wrote with a curious air of complete certainty that there was no more wrongdoing to be found. “While many in the community today wish that they had identified Nassar as a predator,” he wrote, “we believe the evidence in this case will show that no one else at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior.”

As we say, we respect Fitzgerald. But it’s hard to square his assertion that nobody else at Michigan State had a clue Nassar was molesting hundreds of young female athletes when, according to reports, university officials first heard of the abuse decades ago.

In his letter to Schuette, Fitzgerald noted that the FBI had looked into the matter and declined to press charges, which “might reflect that there was no criminal coverup.”

That is entirely possible. And nobody should assume wrongdoing by anybody in the absence of proof.

But a more comprehensive investigation, beyond the purview of the FBI, would look beyond actual criminal acts to more squishy cultural offenses — the looking away, the rationalizing, the refusal to believe. It would look at the water in which Nassar swam.

The people of Michigan, and all of us, should be wary of broad exonerations before the attorney general has carried out his investigation.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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