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368 Ex-Gymnasts: Sexual Exploitation Spans Decades

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USA TODAY

 

No one knows exactly how many children have been sexually exploited in America's gyms over the past 20 years. But an IndyStar-USA TODAY Network review of hundreds of police files and court cases across the country provides for the first time a measure of how pervasive the problem is.

At least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics. That's a rate of one every 20 days.

IndyStar reported that top officials at USA Gymnastics, one of the nation's most prominent Olympic organizations, failed to alert police to many allegations of sexual abuse that occurred on their watch. The problem is far worse. A nine-month investigation into cases across the nation found that predatory coaches were allowed to move from gym to gym, undetected by a lax system of oversight or dangerously passed on by USA Gymnastics-certified gyms.

USA Gymnastics calls itself a leader in child safety. In a statement responding to IndyStar's questions, it said, "Nothing is more important to USA Gymnastics, the Board of Directors and CEO Steve Penny than protecting athletes, which requires sustained vigilance by everyone -- coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials. We are saddened when any athlete has been harmed in the course of his or her gymnastics career."

The organization noted several initiatives, including the use of criminal background checks for coaches, the practice of publishing the names of coaches banned from its competitions and programs that provide educational materials to member gyms.

IndyStar's investigation found:

USA Gymnastics focuses its efforts to stop sexual abuse on educating members instead of setting strict ground rules and enforcing them. It says it can't take aggressive action because member gyms are independent businesses and because of restrictions in federal law pertaining to Olympic organizations. Both are contentions others dispute.

Gym owners have a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting abuse. Some fear harm to their business. When confronted with evidence of abuse, many quietly fired the suspected abusers and failed to warn future employers. Some of those coaches continued to work with children.

Coaches are fired from gym after gym without being tracked or flagged by USA Gymnastics or without losing their membership. The organization often has no idea when a coach is fired by a gym and no systematic way to keep track. Ray Adams was fired or forced to resign from at least six gyms in four states. Yet some gym owners hired Adams, believing his record was clean.

Though the vast majority of officials put children's well-being ahead of business and competition, there are some at every level who have not. Some coaches suspected of abuse kept their jobs as long as they accepted special monitoring. Others were allowed to finish their season before being fired. In 2009, Doug Boger was named Coach of the Year and was sent to international competition while under investigation for alleged sexual abuse.

Victims' stories have been treated with skepticism by USA Gymnastics officials, gym owners, coaches and parents. Former gymnasts Charmaine Carnes and Jennifer Sey said they felt pressured by Penny not to pursue allegations of abuse by prominent coaches Don Peters and Boger. Carnes said she thought Penny tried to keep the claims about Boger quiet for as long as possible to protect the sport's image and win championships, a characterization USA Gymnastics disputes.

In its statement to IndyStar, USA Gymnastics said it constantly strives to improve.

In the wake of IndyStar's investigation in August, USA Gymnastics hired a former prosecutor to evaluate its bylaws and offer advice on how to strengthen its policies. It also established a policy review panel on its board of directors. And it said it will play a central role in developing a U.S. Center for SafeSport to oversee education programs and investigate and adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct for all U.S. Olympic Committee governing bodies.

"USA Gymnastics is proud of the work it has done to address and guard against child sexual abuse," it said in background materials provided to IndyStar.

Penny, who has been president since 2005, declined to be interviewed for this and other IndyStar stories. Neither the chairman of USA Gymnastics' board, Paul Parilla, nor board members responded to interview requests.

Many who want reforms in Olympic sports said they are frustrated by the lack of meaningful change.

"It saddens me because I love our sport," said Molly Shawen-Kollmann, a former member of the U.S. national team and current coach in the Cincinnati area. "This is not indicative of who we want to be. As an organization, they aren't doing their job."

To tally the number of potential victims, IndyStar reporters scoured two decades of news stories and thousands of pages of public records.

Reporters interviewed more than 100 people, including gym owners, athletes, coaches, police officers, prosecutors and child advocates, as well as athletes who came forward after the newspaper's original investigation in August.

All told, these gymnasts named 115 adults at every level of the sport, from respected Olympic mentors to novices working with recreational gymnasts.

The abuse allegedly happened in every part of the USA -- from Maine to California, Washington to Florida, and across the Midwest.

The victims were teenagers and preteens. The youngest was 6. Almost all of them were girls.

They encountered the men accused of abusing them everywhere from a Rhode Island YMCA to the famous Karolyi Ranch in Texas, where USA Gymnastics sends its top female athletes to train. It's unclear how many of the alleged victims and coaches were USA Gymnastics members, because the organization does not disclose that information.

Former coach Jeffrey Bettman, who pleaded guilty this year to child pornography charges, hid cameras in changing rooms in gyms in California and Oregon over the course of a decade. William McCabe pleaded guilty in 2006 to doing the same thing in his Georgia gym.

USA Gymnastics member Kenneth Arnold, 28, was arrested in November in Zionsville, Ind. Arnold, who pleaded not guilty, is accused of pulling back the leotards of two gymnasts and touching their genitals while assisting them with moves.

The charges came 18 months after the gym owner issued Arnold a warning about setting boundaries with gymnasts, writing in an email, "No holding, hugging, touching athletes to tell them to tighten up. No tickling or carrying kids on back."

In a statement, USA Gymnastics said it did not know how many children have alleged sexual abuse against its members.

"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," the statement said. "USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping educate the gymnastics community and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction and cooperate fully with law enforcement."

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December 15, 2016
 
 
 

 

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