By KANTELE FRANKO and JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — 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 center 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” that spanned years, adding that Ohio State — the nation’s third-largest university, with almost 65,000 students and nearly a half-million living alumni — “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 in 2005 nearly a decade after he was quietly pushed out, 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.
Many of Strauss’ accusers who have spoken publicly said they were masturbated or otherwise touched inappropriately during physical exams or leered at in the locker rooms. Many told investigators that they thought his behavior 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’ behavior, referring to him with nicknames like “Dr. Jelly Paws.”
The abuse went on from 1979 to 1997, nearly Strauss’ entire time at Ohio State, and took place ace at various locations across campus, including medical examining rooms, locker rooms, showers and saunas, according to investigators. Strauss, among other things, forced student patients to strip naked, purportedly to “assess” their conditions, or lured them into intimate situations by setting up bogus “medical studies.”
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 report, 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 center until 1996.
At that point, Strauss was investigated and let go as a team doctor and physician at the health center 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 distinguished service — an honor the university is now taking steps to revoke.
Gee, now president of West Virginia University, said Friday he has no recollection of Strauss.
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 concerns 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.
This story has been corrected to show that it was Provost Bruce McPheron, not President Michael Drake, who said the report is unclear on whether anyone contacted law enforcement.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo and Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Mitch Stacy in Columbus contributed to this report.
By KANTELE FRANKO and JULIE CARR SMYTH