‘I didn’t know how to stop him’: Ohio State abuse scandal widens

"Whatever the universities do to address this abuse problem, they’re going to have to change the way they do business.”

Eszter Pryor Ohio State
Eszter Pryor, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Ohio State University and USA Diving. Pryor says an assistant coach at the school sexually abused her when she was 16 and a member of the Ohio State University Diving Club. –Mary Mathis/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Investigators working on behalf of Ohio State University are digging through decades of records to piece together what might have happened decades ago, when Dr. Richard H. Strauss was a team doctor and, according to recent accounts, engaged in some form of sexual misconduct with more than 100 former students.

That misconduct occurred from 1979 to 1997, those former students have said. But Ohio State’s sex abuse crisis and its apparent failure to provide abused athletes with an adequate support system may have extended to more-recent years.

Eszter Pryor, a former diver who trained with the Ohio State University Diving Club as a teenager, discussed in an interview on Monday an abusive relationship that she had in 2014, when she was 16, with a 28-year-old diving coach at the university, where the diving club trained. She said she felt stuck in the relationship because there was no athlete advocate she could call and no way to report the abuse without repercussions.

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Pryor, 21, filed a federal class-action lawsuit earlier this month in which she claims that the assistant coach, Will Bohonyi, forced her to have sex with him starting in 2014. She is suing Bohonyi, USA Diving and the Ohio State University Diving Club over the sexual abuse she said she endured. A criminal investigation is also continuing.

“Everybody liked him and so I thought what he was doing was just normal,” Pryor said on Monday in her first public interview. “I didn’t think he was being serious at first, but then I didn’t know how to stop him.”

A spokesman for Ohio State University noted in an email that the university had put Bohonyi on administrative leave on the same day it learned of the accusations in August 2014 and then immediately opened an investigation. Later that month, the university notified county children services, the Ohio State University police and USA Diving.

“The university does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind,” the spokesman said.

Bohonyi and USA Diving did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pryor’s case is yet another story to emerge amid a litany of recent sexual abuse scandals involving public universities and the apparent mismanagement of abuse accusations. Those cases include Dr. Larry Nassar’s molestation of more than 200 girls and women while practicing at Michigan State, and recent accusations at the University of Southern California that a longtime gynecologist at the university’s student health center, Dr. George Tyndall, sexually abused hundreds of patients for decades despite many warnings of his inappropriate behavior.

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In each case university officials appeared to have received complaints about sexual assaults long before they decided to take action.

Congress has been investigating just what went wrong in the Nassar case. On Tuesday it will hold yet another hearing on how to prevent sexual abuse in amateur sports, with Michigan State’s interim president, John Engler, as one witness. On the eve of that hearing, Pryor said that while lawmakers and officials with the public universities might be eager to talk about how they can protect future athletes from abuse, “if they continue to hide the problem and protect themselves from bad publicity, they are just as bad as the perpetrator.”

Lawyers representing plaintiffs in these cases say they believe there will be more victims speaking out in the coming months about their experiences at other universities.

“If you look at this dynamic of these cases, it’s like what happened in the Catholic Church,” said John C. Manly, a lawyer who represents more than 150 plaintiffs in each of the Nassar and Tyndall cases. “The church abuse stories started with a trickle, but what really broke it open was the abuse in Boston. I think the Larry Nassar case is academia’s and sports’ Boston Archdiocese. So, I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is just the beginning.”

Audry Nafziger, a sex crimes prosecutor in the district attorney’s office of Ventura County, California, has spent years of her career — including more than 100 cases, she estimated — trying to persuade witnesses in sex crimes cases to testify in court.

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She never expected to be the victim, however.

Nafziger was a law student at USC in the early 1990s when she saw Tyndall at the student health center. He gave her an incorrect diagnosis of genital warts, groped her, took photos of her vagina and spoke of his sexual conquests, Nafziger said in an interview on Saturday. She was so disturbed by the experience that for all these years she kept her medical charts from her two visits with him. Yet she did not come forward with accusations at the time, she said, both out of embarrassment and fear of losing her spot in law school for “rocking the boat.”

When she saw Tyndall on the news, she realized that she, too, had been abused by him. “Predators hide in these large institutions because it’s a perfect place for them,” she said, adding that these institutions should institute safeguards and carefully examine each allegation. The institutions should also have enough people involved, she said, so that one person cannot hide the abuse.

Pryor did not know who to turn to for help when Bohonyi began paying special attention to her in 2014. He began sending her text messages, including one that said, “I’m interested in a girl whose name begins with the letter ‘e.’” She said he subsequently sent her a text message with a photo of his genitals and asked her to reciprocate, which she did.

She said she felt forced to do what he asked because he was in a position of authority and had power over her diving career. She competed in the trials for the U.S. Olympic team when she was 13. She worried that a criticism of a coach would derail her Olympic goals.

Those messages from Bohonyi turned into one-on-one meetings, as well as oral and vaginal sex in his car on the Ohio State campus, Pryor said. The first time they had sex, she was 16, she said. He was 28.

After weeks of abuse, a teammate of Pryor’s found out about the relationship after seeing photos of the two of them on her phone. Eventually, Bohonyi’s fellow coaches found out. Pryor told her parents about it, she said, which is how Ohio State eventually was notified.

Bohonyi was fired on August 29, 2014, about two weeks after Ohio State began its investigation. USA Diving was notified but did not place Bohonyi on its public banned coaches list until early 2015. He was the first person on the list, Pryor said, because the list did not exist beforehand.

She said she decided to contact law enforcement herself this January because she learned that Bohonyi was still coaching. By then, she had dropped out of Penn State University, where she had been on the diving team. She said she developed an eating disorder and refused treatment, and left school because of it.

Nafziger, the California prosecutor, said Congress could go as far as withdrawing funding from public universities that fail to adequately investigate accusations of sexual abuse. For so many years, USC failed to stop Tyndall when it easily could have, she said, and it could have used more incentive to do the right thing.

“Women complained in writing before he put his hands all over me,” she said, referring to Tyndall’s abuse. “You have to have an audience that’s willing to believe and see what’s happening.”

Whatever the universities do to address this abuse problem, Nafziger said, “they’re going to have to change the way they do business.”