Out of Balance: An IndyStar investigation into USA Gymnastics

Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, Robert Scheer (Photographer), and Steve Berta (Editor), Out of Balance: An IndyStar investigation into USA Gymnastics. The Indianapolis Star, This series began on Thursday, 4 August 2016. “In March 2016, IndyStar began investigating USA Gymnastics – one of America’s most prominent youth sports organizations, and the governing body for the U.S. Olympic team. The investigation revealed that USA Gymnastics has followed a policy of not reporting all sexual abuse allegations against its coaches. That practice has enabled coaches to continuing preying on children despite repeated warning signs. IndyStar also has revealed a culture within the gymnastics community that has allowed coaches to shift from gym to gym, again despite warnings of inappropriate behavior. The investigation also provided the first comprehensive look at the pervasiveness of the problem, revealing that at least 368 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse over the past 20 years. IndyStar also brought to light accusations of sexual abuse by the former team doctor [Larry Nassar] for USA Gymnastics. That doctor has since been arrested on charges of criminal sexual conduct and child pornography. USA Gymnastics has hired an attorney to examine its internal practices. That review is ongoing.” Update: Christine Hauser and Maggie Astor, The Larry Nassar Case and What Comes Next, The New York Times,  Thursday, 25 January 2018. “Lawrence G. Nassar, the former physician for the American gymnastics team, was sentenced on Jan. 24 to 40 to 175 years in prison for sex crimes. It capped more than a week of victim impact statements by young women and teenagers who described how, as aspiring athletes, they were sent to Dr. Nassar at gymnastics camps, gyms, his home and the Michigan State University clinic. For decades, he molested athletes under the guise of medical treatment.”

Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations [USA Gymnastics] failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.

An IndyStar investigation uncovered multiple examples of children suffering the consequences, including a Georgia case in which a coach preyed on young female athletes for seven years after USA Gymnastics dismissed the first of four warnings about him.

In a 2013 lawsuit filed by one of that coach’s victims, two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted under oath that the organization routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.

Legal experts and child advocates expressed alarm about that approach, saying the best practice is to report every allegation to authorities. Laws in every state require people to report suspected child abuse….

USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, develops the U.S. Olympic team and promotes the industry at all levels. Its members include more than 121,000 athletes and 3,000 gyms. The organization touts itself as a “big time brand” with sponsors such as AT&T and Hershey’s….

USA Gymnastics received at least four complaints about coach William McCabe as early as 1998. One gym owner warned the organization in 1998 that McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” USA Gymnastics never reported the allegations to police and, according to federal authorities, he began molesting an underage girl in 1999….

In the McCabe case, the organization acknowledged in court records that it seldom, if ever, forwarded allegations of child abuse to police or child protective services without being asked. When questioned under oath about its practices, [Steve] Penny [President of USA Gymnastics] and his predecessor, Robert Colarossi, shed light on why. The reasons included concern about potential damage to a coach’s reputation if an allegation proved to be false….

…[USA Gymnastics] compiled confidential sexual misconduct complaint files about 54 coaches over a 10-year period from 1996 to 2006, court records show. It’s unclear which, if any, of the complaints in those files were reported to authorities. It’s also unclear how many files have been added since 2006….

Although USA Gymnastics didn’t pass all complaints to police, officials did sometimes launch their own investigation. But that, too, is a bad practice, child welfare experts note, because internal investigations can be tainted by a conflict of interest and can impede a criminal probe. Depositions and other court records reviewed by IndyStar reveal the organization was inconsistent in the criteria it used to decide whether to investigate….

Legal experts told IndyStar the law doesn’t require firsthand information.

All it requires is a “reason to believe” abuse has occurred….

Kristina Korobov, Assistant U.S. Attorney: ‘When you look at a lot of chronic cases of child abuse, where you have multiple children abused over a period of time, a common thread is certainly that someone within the institution knew and failed to report. So if people are serious about putting an end to institutional abuse or at least reducing the amount of it, the best thing they can do is pick up the phone and make a report.’…

All 50 states have laws that require people to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Who has that duty varies from state to state.

In Indiana, where USA Gymnastics is headquartered, the law specifically requires everyone — including coaches, gym owners and officials of sports organizations — to report child abuse….

W. Brian Cornwell, of Lasky Cooper Law, who is representing an abuse victim in a suit against USA Gymnastics: ‘USA Gymnastics’ policies and practices are designed to protect its brand, instead of protecting and keeping its athletes safe from child molesters masquerading as gymnastic coaches.’…

McCabe continued coaching gymnastics until 2006, more than seven years after USA Gymnastics received its first warning about him. By then, he was co-owner of Savannah Metro Gymnastics & Cheerleading in Rincon, Georgia, and he was preying on other young victims.

See also: Heather Vogell, When USA Gymnastics Turned a Blind Eye to Sexual Abuse. ProPublica, 15 August 2016.