WASHINGTON - A former US Olympic gymnastics team doctor accused of molesting more than 100 female athletes pleaded guilty Tuesday to three charges of child pornography, avoiding tougher sexual assault charges in the first case to be heard against him.
A Michigan federal court said Larry Nassar, 53, a doctor for USA Gymnastics from 1996 to 2015, faces up to 20 years for each of the pornography charges, adding up to a maximum allowable sentence of 60 years.
In exchange for pleading guilty to those three counts, the court dropped federal criminal charges that Nassar molested four athletes, one as young as 11 at the time, on two occasions while he worked with their teams.
"Laying aside for the moment the troubling aspects of the plea bargain, it's good to see the convictions start. First of many, Lord willing," said Jacob Denhollander on Twitter. He was speaking on behalf of his wife, Rachael Denhollander, a former Olympian who was the first woman to go public with allegations against Nassar.
During the trial, Rachael Denhollander said she believed sport and other institutions failed to protect women and girls from Nassar.
"This is not just about Larry Nassar," she said at the time. "There are institutional dynamics that are at play."
Michigan State fired Nassar, now 53, in September. He left USA Gymnastics in late 2015.
According to Acting US Attorney Andrew Birge, who prosecuted the case, the four women supported the plea agreement, in which the government accepted not to further prosecute their specific assault charges.
It was the first federal sexual assault case to be heard against Nassar. The court said Nassar could still be tried on other possible allegations of sexual abuse.
In addition, he faces sexual assault charges and civil lawsuits in Michigan and California in complaints involving more than 100 women who say he abused them.
"With Dr. Nassar's admissions of guilt on federal charges today, victims and the public can be assured that a day of reckoning is indeed in Dr. Nassar's future," Birge said.
"Those who exploit children will be found out and they will be held accountable."
-- 'Gymnastic god' --
Nassar served as the US gymnastics team's doctor through four Olympic Games.
In a week of hearings in late June, witnesses testified that Nassar, using his position as a team doctor, molested and penetrated girls with his fingers under the guise of providing medical care.
"He convinced these girls that this was some type of legitimate treatment," the prosecutor said.
"Why would they question this gymnastics god?"
The case cast a dark shadow on the country's vaunted youth gymnastics program, which has produced a steady stream of world and Olympic champions.
The US Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, and some of the country's most prominent gymnastic clubs known for training Olympic champions, have been sued for allegedly hiding and protecting sexual abusers, including Nassar.
Also sued is Michigan State University, where coaches and trainers were allegedly told about Nassar's abuse as early as 1999 but took no action.