For more than three decades, he got away with it.

Starting in the 1970s,USA Swimming coach Andrew “Andy” King moved up and down the West Coast. He held positions at organizations from California to Washington. He was named 2003 Western Team head coach and worked with hundreds of children, including a number of high-level athletes. On paper, Andy King looked like an all-around good guy.

Earlier this year, it became clear he was anything but.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he allegedly molested as many as a dozen female swimmers in the San Francisco Bay area. One of those victims claims King impregnated her and then forced her to have an abortion. As soon as questions about his behavior surfaced, he left the area and moved to Oak Harbor, Wash. He continued the same pattern there. When questions arose, he abruptly resigned and returned to the Bay area, landing a coaching job in San Jose.

He probably would have continued the pattern, amassing more victims, had one not stepped forward, ending the years of silence. Finally, in February 2010, the pattern was broken. King was convicted of 20 counts of child molestation and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Had the story ended there, King could have been written off as just one bad man.

But it didn’t.

Another of King’s victims, a 15-year-old girl, pursued a civil case against him — and U.S. Swimming, also known as USA Swimming. The lawsuit’s allegations shocked the swimming world and made it clear more was going on than the actions of just one bad man. The suit accuses more than 32 swim coaches of molesting young swimmers. And it claimed USA Swimming knew about many of the incidents, but failed to take appropriate actions.

From the beginning, USA Swimming officials have asserted they take coach misconduct very seriously. Since the lawsuit was filed, the organization has released a 7-point action plan to ensure athlete safety; partnered with the Child Welfare League of America, a nonprofit organization founded in 1920; and released a list of 46 permanently banned coaches and officials. Most have been barred for sexual offenses that occurred within the past two decades.

But critics, including Mike Saltzstein, former USA Swimming vice president, say the organization is not doing enough. Meanwhile, at least four additional cases have been filed against the group and more are to come, according to Indianapolis attorney Jonathan Little, part of a team of attorneys representing victims from around the country. The accused coaches are charged with sexual violations ranging from videotaping young swimmers, to inappropriate massaging and touching, and rape, according to Little. In King’s case, one of his former swimmers publicly claimed that he made her kiss one of her teammates in front of the rest of the team, promising that the entire team would have an easier practice if she complied.

But just as King was a harbinger of more serious problems at USA Swimming, the sex abuse scandal rocking that organization may very well be a warning sign of bigger problems in aquatics, say sex abuse experts.

“Organizations have been derelict, in my opinion, in recognizing that they are vulnerable to having people [who would do harm] in their ranks,” says Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University professor and expert on the issue of sexual abuse by teachers and coaches.

Aquatics seems to fit that description. In light of the USA Swimming firestorm, 32 percent of aquatics professionals say they are not confident they have adequate protocols in place when hiring a new staff member, according to an August 2010 online survey of approximately 515 Aquatics International readers. But only 9 percent plan to make any changes.

What’s more, though the accusations against USA Swimming have received national news coverage, some leaders appear unwilling or unable to address the issue. At best, they’re uncomfortable discussing the prickly subject of sex abuse. At worst, they simply refuse to accept a role in preventing future abuse.

“Organizations can do just about nothing,” says John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. “The issue is parents going to police. That’s the only way you’re going to get these people out.”

Much like the Boy Scouts of America, and the Roman Catholic Church, for many years the issue of child sex abuse has been virtually ignored in aquatics. As a result, experts say not enough is being done to prevent another King from showing up at almost any aquatics facility in the nation — and amassing more victims.

Reality of sex abuse

Clearly, child sexual abuse isn’t just a problem in swimming. Any youth-serving organization is attractive to predators, says Elizabeth Warren, national prevention program manager of Darkness to Light, a Charleston, S.C.-based nonprofit that promotes child sexual abuse awareness and education programs.

“Trying to paint this as a swimming picture is totally unfair and completely unreasonable,” Leonard adds. “It’s a larger issue in society.” 

Indeed, one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. What’s more, other research suggests that in approximately 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows, such as a camp counselor, instructor, baby sitter or coach. Most often, that adult is a male and the victim is a female, but statistics show that’s certainly not always the case.

“Awareness of, and education on, child protection issues among sport teachers, coaches and other stakeholders is too often lacking,” according to “Protecting Children From Violence In Sport: A Review With a Focus on Industrialized Countries,” a July 2010 report from theUNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy.

A 2002 Australian study of athletes at the club and elite level found that 31 percent of female and 21 percent of male athletes had been sexually abused at some time in their lives. It also showed that 41 percent of females and 29 percent of males who reported sexual abuse said it happened within the sports environment.

Additionally, 25 percent of Danish athletes were aware of incidents in which coaches sexually harassed sport participants under age 18, or had personally experienced it, according to a 2001 Danish study of 250 sport students in the UNICEF report.

Coaching is an attractive role for child molesters because it brings them closer to young people. Athletes often spend significant amounts of time with coaches, in many cases away from the practice venue at competitions and events. That’s when they are most vulnerable, with incidents of abuse more likely to happen “off site,” according to experts such as Brooke de Lench, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006).

That was the case with former Northern California swim coach Norman Havercroft, accused of sexually abusing Jancy Thompson, who swam on his team as a teenager in the 1990s. According to the ongoing lawsuit, Havercroft allegedly sexually molested Thompson at a number of settings, including his home, a school and other sites during out-of-town meets. He also allegedly molested a young swimmer in a hotel room on an overnight trip to a swim meet. She filed a lawsuit against Havercroft in 2001.

All coaches have a significant degree of power over the athletes. A young swimmer might be told by her parents to “listen to the coach,” and older athletes may fear that if they don’t do whatever the coach wants, it may mean the loss of a scholarship or a place on the team.

“There are strong cultural factors at play here based on trust, devotion, ambition and submission to authority figures,” explains Celia Brackenridge, an internationally recognized author and expert on youth sport and athlete welfare. “The performance culture is not unlike that in a cult or religious environment where the young person — in this case, a swimmer — is prepared to sacrifice, do almost anything to succeed, and feels she has no option but to comply. The medal is the equivalent of salvation and redemption.”

Sex offender M.O.’s

Those who would infiltrate an organization such as a swim team are likely to fall under one of two types. First, there are the individuals who sign on as coaches, teachers and group leaders for the express purpose of getting close to a group of potential young victims. Second, there are those who don’t necessarily go into coaching to molest, but nonetheless end up in a situation. As Shoop explains, these perpetrators “‘never meant to do anything’ and might even think they’re truly in love.” 

If all pedophiles fit the stereotypical profile of a creepy looking individual lurking in the shadows, weeding out those who would do harm would be simple. But that’s not the case. Perpetrators often are individuals everyone knows and trusts.

“Sex offenders look just like me and you, and they go out of their way to blend in with the everyday behavior in an organization,” Warren says.

In most cases, that fact helps a perpetrator gain the trust of the young person through a “grooming” process. This might entail extra attention, gifts and/or innocent (albeit inappropriate) physical contact, such as a hug. By the time that behavior crosses the line, the athlete is already entangled in a relationship with the perpetrator and coming forward is difficult.

A number of factors make it difficult, Little says. “First, the victims often feel that somehow they may be at fault,” he says. In addition, by coming forward, victims must overcome any fears that no one will believe them, publicly admit what happened and face the perpetrator in court.

What’s more, the culture of an organization can make coming forward even tougher. “No one wants to face the harsh reality that these pedophiles can be our uncles, teachers coaches and friends,” Warren says.

The issue can be even more complicated if the coach has a strong reputation for winning. A winning coach likely means greater prestige and financial stability for an organization, so it’s not hard to fathom how that might make it easier for some to look away.

“I’m hearing directly from the parents that many times when they do report something to a higher-up, concerns are basically ignored,” de Lench says. “It’s a band of brothers, if you will, and many times they’re protecting each other.”

According to Little, that’s the case with USA Swimming. “USA Swimming has established a culture that blames the victims and protects the coaches,” he asserts. “It has established a cult atmosphere centered around the Olympics. ‘How dare you challenge us? We are the holders of the keys to your Olympic dreams.’”

As a result, much of the responsibility for identifying pedophiles in aquatic and other athletic organizations has fallen on the victims and their parents — until now. Yet without the support of the organization, the naming of offenders often doesn’t happen until years later because parents are in the dark and victims are too afraid or ashamed to come forward.

“As a policy matter, it’s not advisable to put the burden on those who have been harassed,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimming champion and now a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “There’s tremendous shame involved, and that makes it difficult for them to be responsible.”

To eliminate predators, experts such as  Hogshead-Makar say all parties must be involved. Organizations need to implement a comprehensive program that addresses staff, parents and athletes. “Everyone plays a role,” adds Sally Johnson, executive director, National Council of Youth Sports. “It is so important that everyone take the responsibility.”

Guarding against predators

One place organizations can start is requiring criminal background checks.

Johnson’s Stuart, Fla.-based organization represents more than 185 organizations/corporations. In 2003, it was named in the Federal PROTECT Act to work with the FBI on a pilot program addressing the issue of child sexual abuse. In 2004, NCYS cofounded the National Center for Safety Initiatives as a resource to provide comprehensive background screenings.

The NCSI screenings generally include:

  •  Identity verification, using SSN Verification and the Trace report.
  • A national criminal database search, updated regularly with more than 300 million criminal records.
  • An OFAC terrorist database search.
  • A Sex Offender Registry search of all available states (presently 49, plus Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico).

Also, most of NCSI’s programs include at least one county search that generally covers longest and most recent residency in the past five years. Other components can be added.

“Background screening is a critical element to any hiring, certification and/or volunteer process because … it gives us important information about an individual that may be used as part of an overall process,” Johnson says.

According to the Aquatics International survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents now are doing criminal background checks. But Johnson and other experts are quick to point out that it cannot be the “be all, end all” approach.

“Criminal background checks, through any source, have some limitations. The criminal records system in America is highly fragmented, with courts housing records at local, county, state and federal levels,” Johnson says. “As well, if a crime is not reported and/or processed or if the arrest/charge was dismissed and/or did not result in a conviction or was later sealed, expunged or otherwise removed, the record may not be available and/or applicable.”

In fact, only approximately 5 percent of sex offenders have a record, according to the CDC and other major law enforcement agencies. For that reason, good reference checks are another essential strategy to weed out a potential sex offender.

“References … will almost always know if a candidate has had prior problems, meaning red flag behaviors or actual incidents of abuse,” says Kevin Trapani, president/CEO of The Redwoods Group, Morrisville, N.C.

A good reference check should include a cross section of former athletes, parents and staffers who have worked with the individual professionally. The Redwoods Group, which handles insurance and risk management for organizations, including The Y and Jewish Community Centers, also requires contact with a close family member.

“It might seem counterintuitive, but every year we have a few cases where organizations have spoken to a family member and that person has said, ‘Couldn’t [my relative] do anything else but work with kids?’ That raises a red flag and that individual is not hired,” Trapani says.

Still, nothing is foolproof, and dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse proactively “puts more of an onus on club owners and organizations,” notes Dr. Pat Griffin, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an NCAA recognized educational consultant who is actively involved with the nonprofit Women’s Sports Foundation.

For that reason, she says comprehensive policies also should be put in place, covering things such as mandatory staff training, and strict enforcement of a two-or- more-coaches-at-all-times rule to discourage any adult staff member or volunteer from ever being alone with an athlete.

“One of the difficulties is that you really have to build up trust, and a sexual predator is extremely good at this,” says Gareth Hedges, associate general counsel for The Redwoods Group. “What we have to make sure of when we put rules in place is to balance that trust with scrutiny by staff and parents.”

Parents are key players and must be made aware of all policies as well, according to experts. They should be educated about the importance of speaking to their kids about what is appropriate behavior and what is not an acceptable way for an adult to speak or interact physically.

“The most common thing we see among victims may be that the parents weren’t talking to them about [sex abuse] and the kids weren’t armed with the information that they have the right to say 'no' to an adult,” Warren says.

Adds de Lench, “[Parents] need to feel comfortable that when they go to a team meeting or something, that they will have all their questions answered. If they don’t feel comfortable asking for changes or raising concerns, they won’t.”

Changing the status quo

What will it take to change the status quo and encourage youth-serving sports organizations such as those in aquatics to take action?

In 1995 when Paul Hickson, a former U.K. Olympic swimming head coach was convicted of raping and molesting more than one of his athletes, it was a wake-up call. Since that time, “all 58 national governing bodies of sport in England adopted child protection policies,” according to a report by Brackenridge and two other experts.

Certainly, media attention on the USA Swimming cases is having a similar effect in bringing child sexual abuse out from the shadows here in the United States.

Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee said in USA Today that USA Swimming cases have “sensitized people” to the fact that abuse is happening, which “they didn’t know or didn’t think about in the past.”

That’s been the case for Tim Bauer, head coach of The Woodlands Swim Team, a USA Swimming club in The Woodlands, Texas. When he drove two of his swimmers to an out-of-town meet a few years ago, he didn’t think anything of it. “I would have never [been in the car alone with just one swimmer], but now I’m realizing that even with two athletes, there should have been another adult present,” Bauer says. In light of the lawsuits involving USA Swimming, he says his organization has decided to evaluate all of its policies and make changes to ensure the safety of swimmers and coaches.

For its part, USA Swimming has publicly announced a number of policy changes. The organization’s new 7-point action plan aims to better safeguard athletes from sexual abuse. Some changes the plan calls for include:

  • Developing comprehensive new guidelines addressing acceptable coach behavior.
  • Enhancing the system for reporting sexual abuse to USA Swimming and law enforcement.
  • Reviewing the current Code of Conduct and background screening.
  • Educating athletes, parents, coaches and club leaders on the issue of sexual abuse.

“There are two points that will absolutely make the most difference in addressing this societal tragedy, and they go hand in hand. They are education and reporting,” Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming executive director, tells Aquatics International. “We want to educate our coaches, athletes and parents — the people who are at the swim clubs interacting with each other, talking to the athletes — about how to identify inappropriate behavior and how to report it. It is our goal that our entire membership knows that truthfully reporting this behavior is not only acceptable, but is a serious and important responsibility.”

Wielgus notes that since the plan was published, the organization has acted on implementing changes in several ways. At its House of Delegates Meeting in September, USA Swimming approved a number of measures based on the action plan. The background check program was expanded and, effective Jan. 1, all nonathlete members must pass a criminal background screening. Furthermore, a revised set of athlete protection policies was formally adopted, and the rulebook now includes guidelines for reporting abuse, which has been made mandatory. The organization has hired an athlete protection officer, Susan Wossner.

Earlier, the organization partnered with the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of agencies formed in 1920 and dedicated to addressing child welfare issues.

“We take this issue very seriously and are working tirelessly to find the best and most effective ways in which to address it,” Wielgus says. “We want to be a leader among governing bodies in the area of athlete protection, and we have committed to sharing our programming and key learnings on this topic. While it’s a difficult and emotional issue, we are not going to shy away from it. Rather, we are looking for ways to improve and expand our athlete protection efforts, and to raise the bar on athlete protection throughout the Olympic movement.”

But to raise the bar within aquatics, as Warren notes, “We need to see more organizations being proactive.”

Jim Everett, CEO of the Treasure Valley YMCA in Boise, Idaho, is one organization leader who has been working to address child sexual abuse for some time.

When the first lawsuit against USA Swimming was filed, he wrote an open letter to all Treasure Valley YMCA members, reassuring parents and explaining some of his organization’s policies. These include the following: All staffers, including swim team coaches, will attend a four-hour YMCA child-abuse prevention training program within 90 days of their hiring; all employees will undergo background checks and reference checks; and a staff policy that instructs employees never to be alone with children, have outside activities where they would be alone with children, or baby-sit any child that they have a relationship with through The Y.

“In 99.999 percent of cases, a child’s relationship with a coach is an extremely positive one, and we certainly have a responsibility to make sure that’s what we provide,” Everett says. “People trust their kids to us. One kid is one too many.