Staff at the University of Michigan missed many opportunities to stop a doctor who committed sexual misconduct for decades with long-term consequences for hundreds of patients, including generations of student athletes, a law firm hired by the school reported Tuesday.
The long-awaited report by the WilmerHale firm comes more than a year after former students publicly accused the late Robert Anderson of molesting them during routine physicals or other visits. Some university officials at the time took no action despite being aware of complaints, including legendary football Coach Bo Schembechler, the report said.
Their failure to act allowed Anderson “countless occasions” to harass, abuse and assault patients during his 37-year career, attorneys for the firm wrote.
“He continued to provide medical services to student athletes and other patients — and to engage in sexual misconduct with large numbers of them — for the rest of his career,” the report said.
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A January court filing indicated there could be more than 850 victims, which would exceed the number of women and girls who were part of a $500 million settlement with Michigan State University over abuse by sports doctor Larry Nassar. Ohio State University has paid more than $45 million to 185 people who said they were groped by Richard Strauss, another sports doctor.
The law firm's inquiry found at least 20 occasions when a student, athlete or other individual spoke with university staff about Anderson's actions. Those accounts either came during interviews conducted by attorneys or from reports made to the university's Division of Public Safety & Security during its investigation of Anderson's career.
Thomas Easthope, who was the assistant vice president of student services and oversaw the University Health Service, received complaints about Anderson at least three times in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Easthope claimed he confronted Anderson and fired him, but that was not true, the report said.
“Despite having heard about Dr. Anderson’s misconduct, Mr. Easthope himself signed documentation related to Dr. Anderson’s continued employment at UHS in January 1980 and approved a salary increase for him in or around August 1980,” the inquiry found.
Easthope died in February.
“We express our unconditional support for and hope for the healing of the victims of Dr. Anderson," the Easthope family said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We believe that the WilmerHale report is problematic and scapegoats our father who, while dying of cancer, cooperated in every aspect of the investigation to ensure transparency for the victims of the events that happened over 40 years ago. He was not the final decision-maker at the university regarding Dr. Anderson’s continued employment and he had no say or participation in his eventual transfer to the the athletic department. Our father always stood up for the underdog and the marginalized. He should be remembered for his forthrightness in addressing this tragedy."
Coaches, trainers and other staff in the university’s athletic department also did not question Anderson's status, despite rampant rumors and even jokes among student athletes about the doctor’s behavior, the report said.
“The fact that no one took meaningful action is particularly disturbing in light of the nature, scope, and duration of Dr. Anderson’s misconduct,” the report said in reference to athletics.
Attorneys counted eight instances in which a student athlete directly complained to a coach or another athletics staff member about Anderson.
Three of those accounts came from former Michigan football players who reported telling Schembechler in the 1970s about Anderson's behavior during physical exams.
Schembechler, who died in 2006, is hailed as the greatest coach of college football’s winningest program. He led the Wolverines from 1969-89 and won 194 games at the school, and he had 234 victories including wins over six seasons at Miami of Ohio.
One former player told the school’s department of public safety and security that he told Schembechler in the late 1970s that Anderson had fondled him during an exam and the late coach told him to “toughen up,” according to the report.
Another athlete alleged that Anderson abused him in the early 1980s during a conversation with Schembechler, who instructed him to relay the concerns to then-athletic director Don Canham, who took no action after being told twice, according to the report.
The report also notes that staff who worked with Schembechler told investigators that the late coach would not have tolerated misconduct had he been aware.
His son Shemy Schembechler told The AP on Tuesday that it's “disgraceful,” to say his father didn’t care about his players, and that his father would have acted if any students shared concerns about Anderson.
Canham, who turned Michigan into a modern sports marketing powerhouse, died in 2005. A message seeking comment was left with Canham’s daughter, Clare Eaton.
The university has acknowledged Anderson's abuse but turned to the law firm for an independent, comprehensive review of what happened during the doctor's long career. Anderson retired in 2003 and died in 2008.
WilmerHale said 600 people made reports to the firm about their experiences with Anderson; 300 agreed to be interviewed. Although most victims who have stepped forward or filed lawsuits have been men, the report said women were also abused.
“The medical experts we consulted confirm what many patients suspected: Dr. Anderson’s conduct was not consistent with any recognized standard of care and was, on the contrary, grossly improper,” according to the report.
The law firm credited the university for recent work on sexual misconduct policies and procedures, but recommended more training on recognizing and reporting sexual misconduct.
Athletics employees and student athletes should specifically receive training on how team dynamics and culture can discourage reporting of sexual misconduct, the report said.
Former student athletes reported feeling embarrassed or ashamed about what happened while others were dismissed when they did share concerns with coaches, according to interviews and documents.
“We will work to regain the trust of survivors and to assure that we foster a safe environment for our students, our employees, and our community,” President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents said in a written statement.
The university has expressed a willingness to settle lawsuits out of court. A mediator is working with all sides.
Parker Stinar, an attorney who represents more than 170 people who claim they were abused by Anderson, said it's not surprising that the report affirms former patients' accounts.
“More shocking is the WilmerHale Report confirms that the University of Michigan knew about Anderson’s sexual abuse conduct for decades and failed to take any appropriate measures to protect their students, athletes, and individuals against a sexual predator they had known about for forty years,” Stinar said.
Washtenaw County prosecutors first received the university police department’s report on its investigation of allegations against Anderson in late April or early May of 2019. A prosecutor concluded that summer that no criminal charges could be authorized because the primary suspect had died and none of the offenses were within Michigan’s six-year statute of limitations.
White reported from Detroit and Foody reported from Chicago.