“Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations 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.”
That’s the Indianapolis’ Star’s opening paragraph concerning what is sure to be the latest sexual abuse scandal in our times. The allegations are eerily similar to the ones we’ve heard previously about the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and other institutions of public trust. The institutions themselves failed to speak up when top officials learned of sexual abuse allegations.
In this instance, it is USA Gymnastics, the sports’ governing body in charge of developing the US Olympic team every four years. According to an extensive investigation by the Indianapolis Star, USA Gymnastics has failed in its fiduciary duty to protect children from harm just as the Catholic Church failed to protect children. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the abuse stories are very similar to the ones Catholic children experienced decades ago.
According to the Star, “USA Gymnastics would not disclose the total number of sexual misconduct allegations it receives each year. But records show the organization compiled complaint dossiers on more than 50 coaches and filed them in a drawer in its executive office in Indianapolis. The contents of those files remain secret, hidden under seal in the case filed by Ganser’s daughter. IndyStar, as part of the USA TODAY Network, filed a motion seeking to make the files public. The judge in that case has not yet ruled.”
Once again, a sexual abuse scandal hinges on documents that remain in the control of an organization that didn’t protect children. However, in spite of not being allowed access to the files, the newspaper reporters found critical information our cases in which USA Gymnastics was warned of suspected abuse by coaches but did not initiate a report to authorities.
Those coaches went on, according to police and court records, to abuse at least 14 underage gymnasts after the warnings:
- USA Gymnastics received a detailed complaint in 2011 about Marvin Sharp, who was named 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year. It described inappropriate touching of minors and warned that he shouldn’t be around children. Four years later, USA Gymnastics reported Sharp to police — but only after it was confronted with another disturbing allegation about him. This one led to Sharp being accused of touching a gymnast’s vagina, trimming her pubic hair and taking sexually explicit pictures of her beginning when she was 12 years old. Shortly after he was charged in federal court in Indianapolis last year, he killed himself in jail.
- USA Gymnastics had compiled a thick file of complaints about coach Mark Schiefelbein years before he was charged with molesting a Tennessee girl when she was 10 years old. The girl’s family contacted police in 2002. Schiefelbein penetrated her with his finger multiple times, according to police records. He also videotaped her exposed vagina for what he called “training purposes, so he would know where not to touch her.” The girl’s family was shocked to discover the history of complaints against Schiefelbein, which came to light only after prosecutors subpoenaed records from USA Gymnastics. A jury in Williamson County, Tennessee, convicted him in 2003 of seven counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. He is serving a 36-year prison sentence.
- USA Gymnastics had a sexual misconduct complaint file on James Bell at least five years before his 2003 arrest for molesting three young gymnasts in Rhode Island. It’s unclear what allegations were contained in that file. But IndyStar found prior police reports on Bell in Oregon. In 1990, an underage gymnast told police that Bell had climbed on top of her and told her he wanted to take off her pants. In 1991, a 10-year-old gymnast said Bell stuck his hand inside her shirt and pinched her breast. Bell wasn’t charged and continued coaching until his former employer reported him to police in Middletown, Rhode Island. He went on the run in 2004 and wasn’t rearrested until last year. Bell pleaded guilty in December in Newport County, Rhode Island, to three counts of child molestation and is serving eight years in prison.
- 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. McCabe continued to coach children for nearly seven more years, until Lisa Ganser went to the FBI with concerns about emails to her then-11-year-old daughter. McCabe was charged with molesting gymnasts, secretly videotaping girls changing clothes and posting their naked pictures on the internet. He pleaded guilty in 2006 in Savannah, Georgia, to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He is serving a 30-year sentence.
Of course, USA Gymnastics denied any wrongdoing and defended how it handled child sex abuse complaints. Well, we’ve heard that before. USA Gymnastics must be held accountable right now. Accountability must include access to any and all of their files concerning sexual abuse allegations and the personnel files of all the coaches. Criminal charges should be brought when appropriate. The exploitation and abuse of our children has to stop.
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