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University Of Michigan Faces Sex Abuse Case Against Deceased Doctor

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We begin this hour with a big story out of Michigan which has not been getting the national attention it deserves. It may be the largest case of sex abuse by a single person in U.S. history. More than 950 people - some women but mostly men - have accused now-deceased University of Michigan doctor Robert E. Anderson of sexual abuse while he worked for the university between 1966 and 2003. Tad DeLuca is one of them. He was a Michigan wrestler in 1972 when he first saw Anderson with complaints of cold sores. DeLuca says he was in his first year at the school, initially naive, then confused and ultimately devastated. And I'll tell you at the outset of this story what he alleges here is both disturbing. And at the same time, he describes it in clinical, explainable terms for any sensitive ears present.

TAD DELUCA: I went to see him, and he kind of did a half look at my face and then he put on a pair of rubber gloves, and he gave me a hernia check, which was no big deal. Then he started, for lack of a better word, rolling or trying to massage my scrotum and my penis. And I just - you know, just kind of sat there. And the next thing he said was, you know, let's - turn around and - you know, and drop your drawers. And he did a prostate check on me. I was 17 years old. And I'm pretty sure there were at least four times before my 18th birthday that I saw him and he did that check on me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: DeLuca says Anderson repeated the process for a knee injury, a shoulder injury, a dislocated elbow and an illness that would later be diagnosed by a different doctor as hepatitis.

DELUCA: I said, I feel terrible. I have a rash under my arm. My skin is discolored. He kind of half looked at it and did a prostate check on me, sent me home. You're fine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It took until his junior year and a conversation with a football player on his hall for Tad DeLuca to clearly see something was very, very wrong.

DELUCA: And this guy went into a tirade about pervert Dr. Anderson. My friend Jimmy went in there, and he got the glove. He had a bad shoulder, but he got the glove. It felt almost like someone slapped me in the chest, or my blood pressure was popping. It's like, oh, my God, pervert.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: DeLuca told us it threw him into confusion.

DELUCA: What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me that someone wants to put their finger up and touch whatever word you want to use? That was devastating. And I couldn't tell the coach because the coach was, like, the most important thing in my life at the time. How did I - how could I tell him that I let someone put his finger into my rectum? It was like, I can't do that. I started wetting the bed. I was 20 years old, so I hadn't wet the bed in - what? - 18 years maybe, 19 years. I had to be careful, like, oh, no - my friend knocks on the door. He's telling me to get ready for class, I've got to kind of - you know, I might have wet in the bed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: DeLuca says he stopped seeking medical assistance and deliberately wrestled in a way to protect his chronically-injured elbow. And he remembers that insisting on not seeking treatment made him a less competitive wrestler. And it affected his feelings about the sport, and it created a rift between him and his teammates. So he wrote a letter to his coach complaining about Dr. Anderson's many, quote, "genital, hernia and prostate examinations."

DELUCA: And he fired back a letter that was pretty nasty and took away my scholarship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tad DeLuca describes that as a kind of pivot point for him. He fought and regained his scholarship with the help of a lawyer, and he left the wrestling team. Robert Anderson, though, kept working at the University of Michigan until 2003. He died in 2008 without facing any charges. Remember, Anderson started his career at Michigan in 1966. Tad DeLuca first sought treatment from him in 1972. Nearly a thousand people now accuse Anderson of inappropriate conduct. Lenny Bernstein is a reporter for The Washington Post.

LENNY BERNSTEIN: This story - what interested me is that it is not confined to athletes. And Lulu, full disclosure, I was at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, so I had familiarity with the locations of things and how the university works. Dr. Anderson saw all kinds of people. He saw students from all walks of life at the university health services. He had a small private practice. He was training medical students from the University of Michigan Medical School. He was doing these kinds of things to all kinds of people. And the story really had not gotten out beyond the Michigan area, and I thought one of the things I could do was to bring wider appreciation to how big a situation this really was.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other survivors said they complained to coaches, trainers, administrators. And nothing happened - the same as what happened to Tad. I mean, how did these allegations finally get meaningful attention after all these years and 950 people who were allegedly abused?

BERNSTEIN: Well, in 2018, Tad wrote a letter to the university. And after some bit of delay - for a number of months - it was assigned to a university detective to begin an investigation. The investigation was done secretly, eventually ended up with the prosecutors. And they decided that because of the passage of time and perhaps some other factors, there was nobody to charge. Then in 2019, another person motivated by the Larry Nassar scandal up the road at Michigan State wrote to the university again and was sort of stonewalled. And he went to the Detroit paper - his name was Robert Julian Stone. And the papers asked the university about what had happened. And at that point, they - university revealed all that had been happening over the past couple of years and put out a call for victims to call in and write in and say what had happened to them. And then eventually, this just mushroomed from there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tad, why did you write that letter in 2018?

DELUCA: It - the big part was Larry Nassar, the women's gymnast at Michigan State. There was one story that was just like mine - she spoke up, and they either threatened to take her scholarship away, or they did - they took money from her. And it's just like, hey, this has happened to me. I know what they're talking about. I knew that, if I stood up and said something, I could be smacked down again really hard and embarrassed, but I - it was just something I had to do. I had to have redemption for this because I - you know, after all these years, I knew I didn't do anything wrong. But I - when I came out of losing the scholarship and when the coach got through with me, I was the problem. I was a loser.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lenny, the university is obviously in mediated talks with attorneys about how to compensate the victims, so we can't really talk too much about that. But they have instituted a number of other reforms aimed at preventing future abuse. In your view, how has the university now responded?

BERNSTEIN: It's too early to tell what the reforms will bring. The university has apologized on behalf of Dr. Anderson and the pain he caused, so they are acknowledging that this occurred. The university has not acknowledged, at least not publicly, the role of all the people who knew or should have known that this was going on and didn't do anything and why. Why - if coaches and trainers and administrators had heard these stories, why did nothing happen for decades? You can say to yourselves, well, it was a different time. We didn't have the same appreciation of sex abuse. The victims were almost all male, and we didn't equate it the same way we did as the sex abuse of women. But Dr. Anderson worked there until 2003, and that is where the university - at least according to the survivors I've spoken with - needs to own up further to what happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tad, what would you like to see next?

DELUCA: You know what? I want them to say, hey, we screwed up. We screwed up for a long time. And it - when they say their apologies and their - whatever they - the words they use, they mean nothing. You know, it - you know, it - I mean, let me put this in wrestling terms. When I won in wrestling, it was my fault. When I lost, it was my fault. I would have no trouble telling you, yep, I messed up. If U of M would just say, hey, guys, we screwed up for so long and messed up so many lives, I think that would go a long way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Tad DeLuca, who is speaking about the abuse he experienced, and Lenny Bernstein, who wrote about the University of Michigan sex abuse scandal for The Washington Post. Thank you both very much.

DELUCA: Thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "THE SUN IN SEPTEMBER")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached out to the University of Michigan. They provided a link to their past statements and pointed in particular to comments made by the head of the university's Board of Regents in September. At the time, he said in part to all who are speaking out, we hear you, and we value you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "THE SUN IN SEPTEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.