USA Gymnastics, the organization that develops the Olympic team, repeatedly failed to report allegations of sexual abuse of underage gymnasts by coaches to authorities, according to an investigative report by the Indianapolis Star that was posted on Thursday.
The organization, which boasts over 120,000 gymnasts at 3,000 gyms, had a policy of dismissing allegations as hearsay and filing them away unless they came directly from a victim or a victim’s parents, the report said. Two former USA Gymnastics executives testified under oath to this policy as part of a 2013 lawsuit filed by a coach’s victim.
Allegations inside USA Gymnastics are sadly too familiar
A report outlining allegations that USA Gymnastics failed to report sexual abuse makes one thing clear: It’s time for sports federations to hand over discipline for such cases to authorities.
Legally, however, suspected child abuse must be reported to authorities.
The 2013 lawsuit, filed in Georgia by the daughter of Lisa Ganser, involves a coach named William McCabe. According to the Star, USA Gymnastics was alerted to the possibility that McCabe was abusing children as far back as 1998. An owner of a gym from which he was fired sent a letter to USA Gymnastics saying that McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.”
In court filings obtained the Star, USA Gymnastics said allegations made against McCabe by two gym owners were “third-hand hearsay” and said the organization had not received a complaint from a member athlete or parent of a member athlete.
USA Gymnastics also argued, according to the Star, that mandatory reporting laws did not apply to it because it was an organization, not an individual.
According to the Star, Ganser enrolled her daughter in a McCabe-run gym in 2002 and, more than a year later, received an anonymous packet with allegations against McCabe, including complaints that had been sent to USA Gymnastics. She contacted USA Gymnastics and was told there were no complaints against McCabe, according to the newspaper.
In 2006, Ganser found disturbing emails on her then-11-year-old daughter’s computer. She called the FBI. Investigators learned that the emails had been sent by McCabe, who was pretending to be an Olympic star, the newspaper reported.
McCabe was eventually accused of molesting girls as young as fifth-graders. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to sexual exploitation of children and is serving a 30-year sentence.
Although USA Gymnastics would not reveal just how many complaints it receives, the Star reported that the organization had compiled dossiers on more than 50 coaches. The contents of those files remain sealed as part of the Ganser case, but the Star has filed a motion asking to make them public. The newspaper did uncover details of four coaches, including McCabe, who were charged with child molestation or sexual exploitation.
One coach, Marvin Sharp, was reported to authorities by USA Gymnastics four years after it received a detailed complaint against him, according to the Star. The former coach of the year, who had mentored multiple Olympians, was charged in federal court and then committed suicide in jail.
USA Gymnastics issued a statement on Thursday responding to the Star’s report.
“Addressing issues of sexual misconduct has been important to USA Gymnastics for many years, and the organization is committed to promoting a safe environment for its athletes,” it said, in part. “We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person’s life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community over the years, and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction, and cooperate fully with law enforcement.”
The statement concluded: “With the judge considering whether to dismiss the pending lawsuit in Georgia, there are limits on what the organization can say publicly during litigation. Nonetheless, USA Gymnastics provided the Indianapolis Star with substantial information on its policies and procedures to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to the safety of its athletes within the scope of its jurisdiction and governance structure. We feel the Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture of our efforts.”
Martha Karolyi, the USA national team coordinator since 2000 and a coach in the United States since she and her husband, Bela, defected from Romania in 1981, said Thursday in Rio that she hadn’t read the entire news report yet.
“I just overheard something and I do not think the accusations are right. I don’t think they are right,” Karolyi told ESPN’s Johnette Howard after the women’s team’s training session. “I think USA Gymnastics is one of the most caring organizations about the children. … But just working with USA Gymnastics for so many years, I just know how much effort is done that everything be done properly.”
Asked if the news would affect the Olympic team, Karolyi replied, “Absolutely not.”
“We’re here at the Olympic Games. And then, if there are any other issues, we will address it afterward,” she said.
Mihai Brestyan, the coach of American gold medalist Aly Raisman, said Team USA’s staff will try to protect the gymnasts from any distractions the report might cause.
“We have concerns, but we try to keep the kids away from that right now,” Brestyan told ESPN. “[The allegations] are a problem, but we cannot resolve that right now, here this week.”