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By the time the U.S. Center for SafeSport officially opened its doors in March 2017, USA Gymnastics had already been mired for eight months in one of the country's worst sexual abuse crises.
Its longtime team physician, Larry Nassar, was in jail, awaiting trial on 28 federal and state charges and accused of sexual assault by more than 80 young women and girls. It faced at least eight state and federal lawsuits from more than 100 women who said the federation had failed to protect them.
Public outrage over policies that did little to deter predators was growing. Its CEO was gone, forced out under pressure by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and it was still four months from hiring an internal safe sport director.
Yet unlike most other national governing bodies that had existing sexual misconduct complaints and turned them over to the U.S. Center for SafeSport — an independent body created to adjudicate sexual abuse cases in the Olympic movement — USA Gymnastics kept at least one case. Marcia Frederick, the first U.S. woman to win a world title, alleged that her coach, Richard Carlson, had sexually abused her in 1979 and 1980, beginning when she was 16.
While USA Gymnastics did not break any rules by keeping the complaint, it raises questions about the organization's judgment, especially given that the governing body remains under intense scrutiny and pending litigation. As of Tuesday, Frederick's case remained unresolved.
"The whole point of creating SafeSport was to get two things: One is independence from the powerful within the sport. Two is to get some expertise, people who know what they're doing," said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who is now a civil rights attorney advocating for the protection of young athletes as the CEO of Champion Women.
National governing bodies (NGBs) have been mandated to turn over any complaints of sexual misconduct to SafeSport since it opened. There was no similar directive for complaints the NGBs had before March 2017. But in educational sessions conducted to familiarize NGBs with the center, the USOC instructed they could either keep cases in which investigations had already begun or, if the center agreed, turn them over to SafeSport, said USOC spokesperson Christy Cahill.
If an NGB had not started an investigation for a sexual misconduct case, the center would take those, too.
"It is fair to say that that was, is and has always been our position — that upon launch of the center that all cases should be submitted to the center," said Rick Adams, the USOC's chief of Paralympic sport and NGB organizational development.
And almost all of the NGBs that had cases opted to give them to SafeSport, according to a USA TODAY Sports survey. Only four — USA Hockey, USA Swimming, USA Cycling and USA Gymnastics — are known to have kept cases to resolve internally.
Citing the pending litigation in which it is contesting claims it failed to protect athletes, USA Gymnastics declined to provide data on the cases it had in March 2017. It also refused to answer questions about Frederick's case.
SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill said the center did not mandate NGBs turn over existing cases because it had concerns about resources and not re-traumatizing victims by repeating an investigation. If an NGB asked the center to take a case, however, it did.
"To the best of our knowledge, we're not aware of any sexual misconduct cases that were previously being handled by NGBs where they asked for the center to get involved and the center didn't," Hill said.
In response to general questions about how USA Gymnastics decided to keep or pass on cases, it said that "in accordance with the Center's policies, USA Gymnastics retained sexual misconduct complaints where the investigatory process was in progress prior to" SafeSport opening.
Adams declined to share what conversations the USOC had with USA Gymnastics about transferring its cases to the center.
"Gymnastics, like all NGBs, we're confident complied with the directives and the conditions of membership that were imposed on them once the center launched," he said, "and that was to send everything to the center."
The gymnastics sex abuse scandal began with a 2016 investigation by The Indianapolis Star, which found more than 350 gymnasts had accused coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics of sexual misconduct over the previous 20 years. Many of those complaints were not reported to law enforcement or child welfare agencies, the Star found, and USA Gymnastics' policies did little to deter predators in the sport.
Though USA Gymnastics had already had her complaint for more than a year when SafeSport opened, Frederick said she would have had no problem with the case being transferred. She said USA Gymnastics never gave her that option.
USA TODAY Sports does not identify people who have made sexual assault complaints, but Frederick agreed to speak publicly about her case.
Frederick was interviewed in 2011 as part of USA Gymnastics' investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Don Peters. Peters had been Frederick's coach when she won her title on uneven bars at the 1978 world championships and while she said he never abused her, she told the investigator she knew of alleged sexual misconduct by other coaches at the gym.
This investigation was about Peters, Frederick said she was told, so she didn't mention Carlson. But a few years later, she spotted a photo on Facebook of a former teammate and Carlson at a gymnastics meet. Not only was Carlson still involved in the sport, Frederick realized, he was coaching children.
"I was sick to my stomach. I thought he was gone," Frederick told USA TODAY Sports. "Since 1980 ... that means this person has been in and out of the sport."
Carlson's attorney, Anthony J. Colleluori, told USA TODAY Sports that his client denies abusing Frederick.
"We don't believe that this situation ever happened," Colleluori said.
Frederick made a formal complaint to USA Gymnastics on Sept. 12, 2015. Steve Penny, the then-president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, wrote Frederick three months later to acknowledge her complaint and tell her that Mike Udvardy of I.R.I.S. Investigations had been hired to handle the case.
USA Gymnastics hoped to have the investigation completed within 90 days, Penny wrote, according to the letter obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Frederick said she was interviewed twice, but from there the case appeared to stall. Frederick said she heard from USA Gymnastics "infrequently" until July 2017, when Mark Busby contacted her.
USA Gymnastics announced July 19, 2017, that it had hired Busby, who previously had handled child and sex abuse crimes as a deputy prosecutor in Indianapolis, as its in-house legal counsel for safe sport issues.
Frederick sent Busby an email on Sept. 17, 2017, and it was at least two weeks before he responded.
"It was not uncommon for my emails to go unanswered for several days or even weeks," Frederick said.
A hearing was held March 19. While Busby's experience as a prosecutor makes him an expert in sex crimes, he is not the one deciding USA Gymnastics' remaining abuse cases. That is the responsibility of "at least three disinterested individuals," according to the governing body's bylaws. At least 20% of that hearing panel must include athlete representation.
Kim Dougherty, Frederick's attorney, said USA Gymnastics submitted its paperwork from the hearing April 2. Following a delay, Carlson's response was submitted the week of April 16. There has been no decision, and Frederick and Dougherty both said they have asked USA Gymnastics about it repeatedly.
As of Thursday, SafeSport was closing cases at an average of 63 days, significantly shorter than the 90 days that Penny told Frederick in 2015.
"I've tried to contact USA Gymnastics and I've gotten nothing," Frederick said. "And that is so hard because that's what happened two years ago."
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