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Former U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Doctor Pleads Guilty To Sexual Abuse

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A former U.S. Olympic gymnastics team doctor pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse in Michigan state court today. Larry Nassar admitted he assaulted young girls under the guise of medical treatment.

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LARRY NASSAR: For all those involved, and - that I'm so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control.

SHAPIRO: It was an emotional moment for more than a hundred women and girls who say they were abused by Nassar. As Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports, some survivors say they reported that abuse years before anyone believed them. And a warning that this story contains some disturbing descriptions of assault.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: It has been a long road to this moment. Twenty years ago, Larissa Boyce was a high school gymnast who spent endless hours covered in chalk dust, pushing through injuries and going to appointments with Dr. Larry Nassar, both at his clinic and at the gym.

LARISSA BOYCE: There were some trainers in the room, and he told them to leave the room. And I remember them looking at each other like, this is weird.

WELLS: Nassar was an icon for gymnasts. For one, he was the doctor for the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. And he was faculty at Michigan State University, where he treated girls like Boyce. But female patients, including some as young as 11, say that during treatments, Nassar used his fingers to penetrate them. They say he didn't wear gloves and he didn't get their consent. Larissa Boyce says the first time that this happened to her, she was 15, maybe 16.

BOYCE: It felt very sexual. It started - you know, he was looking at me. I was - and so I think that's why I tried to scooch away and, like, turn over so I didn't have to look at him.

WELLS: Some girls say their parents were occasionally in the room while this was occurring but that Nassar would block their view. Eventually, Boyce says, she worked up the courage to tell Kathie Klages, her coach at Michigan State University. But after a day of questioning, Boyce says, her coach didn't believe that this was abuse.

BOYCE: Kathie came back in the office and said, well, you know, I could file this, but there's going to be very serious consequences for both you and Dr. Nassar. I remember just, like, looking out the window behind her and not even wanting to look at her.

WELLS: Jump forward now 20 years.

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ROSEMARIE AQUILINA: Do you agree that between May 9, 2014, and May 8, 2015, you sexually penetrated Victim D by putting your finger into her vagina?

NASSAR: Yes.

WELLS: We are in a packed courtroom in Lansing, Mich. Larry Nassar is in an orange jumpsuit. He's pleading guilty to seven charges of first-degree sexual abuse. Nassar already pleaded guilty to federal charges of possessing child pornography. Sentencing in that case is next month. Today Judge Rosemarie Aquilina asked Larry Nassar if there was anything he wanted to say.

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NASSAR: And I pray the rosary every day for forgiveness. I want them to heal. I want this community to heal.

WELLS: For Larissa Boyce, that gymnast from the late '90s, it was the first time she had seen Nassar in years.

BOYCE: There was a point I had to look away because it was really hard. This was a man that we trusted, and he's admitting that what he did was wrong and evil.

WELLS: More than a hundred women and girls have also filed reports about Nassar with the Michigan State Police. They came forward after fellow gymnast Rachael Denhollander went public with her story last year.

And Boyce is not the only woman who says she tried to report Nassar's abuse to Michigan State years ago. One woman says she brought her concerns to athletic trainers, another to the Title IX office - only to be told Nassar was using legitimate medical procedures. The school's gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, was suspended and stepped down last year. Her attorney issued a statement in part saying Klages would never do anything to put any of them in harm's way and that Dr. Nassar was trusted by Ms. Klages to competently and ethically treat her team members. The university says it can't comment on specific allegations while involved in civil suits. But a school spokesman today says we recognize the pain sexual violence causes and deeply regret any time someone in our community experiences it.

Today's plea deal comes with a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years. Nassar's sentencing is in January, and the judge is inviting every woman and girl abused by the former gymnastics doctor to come make a victim impact statement.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.