This past April, Ohio State University began an extensive investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against student athletes by the late Dr. Richard Strauss, an attending physician employed at the university between 1978 and 1998. Strauss, who committed suicide in 2005, is beyond the reach of the law. However, there is a distinct possibility that staff members who were aware or should have known of Strauss’ activities could still face legal consequences.
Since the investigation started, OSU has reached out to more than 260,000 people who have been connected with the university over the decades. Over 200 former students and staff have been interviewed, all of whom have provided firsthand accounts of Strauss’ behavior. Independent investigators from the law firm retained to look into the matter say they expect to question at least 100 more individuals. They continue to work closely with the local county prosecutor.
According to university records, Strauss, a specialist in sports medicine, was first hired in September of 1978. Between July 1981 and June 1995, he was a team physician for the Athletics Department, and worked part time at Student Health Services from July 1994 until August 1996. He also served as an assistant professor of medicine during his tenure at the university. Strauss retired one month before his 60th birthday in 1998.
According to that complaint, Dr. Strauss engaged in “excessive and medically unnecessary fondling, touching and groping” while conducting routine medical exams. All plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against the university allege that the administration was well aware of Strauss’ behavior and took no action. Instead, Strauss was allowed to “quietly” resign and was even given emeritus status.
Allegations that university administrators and faculty members knew of his proclivities and failed to speak out could still open the door to criminal liability for some individuals. Although it is a remote possibility, recent cases set possible precedents on which the prosecution could build a credible argument.
One example would be the case of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Five years after Sandusky's conviction, PSU's president, Graham Spanier, was convicted for child endangerment because he covered up allegations of abuse against Sandusky in 2001.
There is one major difference between that case and the present lawsuit against OSU in that Sandusky assaulted minors. Specifically, Pennsylvania's “Mandated Reporter” law requires anyone who works with children to report suspected abuse if, in their professional opinion, they have “reasonable cause” to believe a child is being victimized. Those who fail to do so face criminal penalties. However, one’s obligation to report suspected abuse is different when the victim is of legal age.
Ohio has a similar law. Mandatory reporters include health care professionals, teachers and other school employees, social workers, child care workers, and “spiritual counselors” other than members of the clergy. Those who fail to make a report can be charged with a fourth degree misdemeanor. Most of the allegations involve former students who were 18 years of age or older at the time of the incidents, so for them, that part of the law would not apply. However, according to one class-action lawsuit filed against the university by four unidentified plaintiffs, one of Strauss’ victims was only 14.
Currently, investigators are attempting to determine if Strauss abused any other minor children during his time at OSU. If this is indeed the case and it can be proven in a court of law, the current litigation could be just the beginning of OSU’s legal problems.