Jon Vaughn, survivor of sexual abuse by Dr. Robert Anderson, speaks on the WilmerHale report and calls for action in front of the Big House Jun. 21. Madeline Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

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CW: Sexual assault

The Michigan House Oversight Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss two new house bills to empower sexual assault survivors to file suit for damages. Victims of late University of Michigan athletic doctor Robert Anderson and former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar spoke in testimony before the committee to express their full support for these bills. 

The two bills, known as Michigan’s Empowering Survivors legislative package, was originally introduced on Sept. 16, 2020 and reintroduced in early 2021 by Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit. It consists of two bills aimed at protecting victims of sexual assault. The legislative package has also received bipartisan support from legislators.

One of the two new house bills included in the legislative package, HB 4307, prevents schools from claiming immunity when the abuse took place “under the guise of medical care and the school knew or should have known,” Berman said.

Berman spoke about the importance of reevaluating the laws to ensure they are protecting community members.

“We need to look again … at the laws we have in place,” Berman said. “Are they adequate? Does there need to be a change? If there’s criminal sexual conduct from a government agency or agent and someone either knew about it or should have known about it and they didn’t do anything to prevent it and they allowed it to continue occurring, then there should be some liability. They shouldn’t be able to hide behind the shield of governmental immunity.”

Rep. Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes, brought up concerns about HB 4307 being overly broad, especially pertaining to the section that states that a school “should have known” about abuse.

The other bill, HB 4360, proposes an amendment to the statute of limitations to allow for a one-year window for those abused while undergoing medical care to file a suit. This is similar to the 90-day window previously allowed by state law for MSU’s Nassar survivors.

Trinea Gonczar, director at Avalon Healing Center, was the first to testify at the hearing as a victim of Nassar. She spoke about how long it took her to acknowledge her assault and the importance of amending the statute of limitations.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that my entire childhood was a lie,” Gonczar said. “As a 37-year-old woman … watching the other brave girls and young women speak their truth and sharing their impact statements one-by-one with almost identical stories (to) mine … assault takes time to process. Just because someone was raped early as a child, they should not be penalized. They should still be protected and offered justice.”

Former U-M football player Jon Vaughn spoke on his assaults during his testimony and announced his support for the legislative package.

“We trusted our doctors, and especially trusted U-M doctors — who wouldn’t?” Vaughn said. “Now in 2021 as a 51-year-old man, I know that we were abused, assaulted, raped.”

Brixie spoke about the variety of reasons many victims do not initially come forward after their assault, including PTSD and threats from the perpetrator.

“It’s important to remember that prior to the 2018 reforms, folks who are survivors only had three years to come forward,” Brixie said. “We in the state of Michigan, and our laws, are partly to blame for serial sex abusers being harbored as a result of our laws.”

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, said the committee should ensure that the bills include some degree of protections for those accused of misconduct.  

“It’s a tough line to walk here where you’re trying to make sure you protect the survivors while also the innocent,” Johnson said. “That’s why it’s a very difficult package of bills here to make sure that we get this right, so encourage the committee to be very active in this to make sure that we can thread the needle to look out for the victims while at the same time protecting the innocent.”

The University has received backlash for its lack of action against Anderson after receiving complaints from students..There have been recent demands for the University to take responsibility for Anderson’s actions, including at the most recent Board of Regents meeting.

WilmerHale, the firm hired by the University to investigate Anderson’s misconduct, found that complaints about Anderson traceback to 1966.

Gonczar spoke about this historical inaction on the part of the University.

“These institutions have shamed, blamed and only protected themselves, which in turn is the exact way to attract predatory behavior to not only flourish, but to be welcomed,” Gonczar said. “Immunity for state universities gives no incentive to change for the better.” … 

Vaughn explained that several U-M officials, including former football coach Bo Schembechler, were aware of Anderson’s misconduct and chose not to act on the   allegations.

“They made a choice not to protect us,” Vaugn said. “Instead, the University enabled our abuse.”

Tad DeLuca, former U-M wrestler, also testified and shared the mental and physical effects that his assaults had on him. During his time at the University, DeLuca reported Anderson to his coach but was turned away. 

After writing an official letter to report Anderson, athletic director Don Canham suspended DeLuca from the wrestling program and took away his full-ride scholarship, which was paying for his out-of-state tuition. According to DeLuca, since the WilmerHale report came out in May 2021, current University employees have denied the allegations and the content of the report, attacking victims who have spoken out.

“The lesson was clear,” DeLuca said. “If you try to stand up for yourself and do the right thing, Michigan will destroy you. They will pound you down. They did.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.