USA Swimming’s handling of child sexual abuse accusations has made headlines again.
Last month, a report was released evaluating how the organization has dealt with the issue of child sexual abuse by coaches. The document included 39 recommendations as to how the organization can improve. Additionally, the California senator who tried last year to pass a state law expanding the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse litigation has introduced another bill on the subject.
“We find the report to be fair and balanced and we’re extremely motivated by its content,” said USA Swimming President Chuck Wielgus. “We’ve learned that there are areas we’re excelling in, like our education and our investigative process, but there are still areas we can also improve based on the report’s recommendations. The report offered constructive criticism that will help us make our Safe Sport program even better.”
In compiling the report, Victor Vieth, executive director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, conducted dozens of interviews, including five with survivors who’d been abused by their coaches, and one with a mother whose daughter was a victim. In addition, the GNCPTC reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
USA Swimming commissioned the report following a rash of lawsuits accusing coaches of molesting or having inappropriate relationships with child athletes and the extensive media coverage surrounding the cases. USA Swimming has drawn fire from those who accuse swimming’s governing body of protecting accused coaches at the cost of children’s safety.
The report stated that USA Swimming had made significant strides since 2010, when it introduced its Safe Sport program meant to protect children. “The reforms implemented after 2010 have been substantive and have resulted in children being protected who, in the past, may have fallen through the cracks,” the document noted. “Even so, there are remaining weaknesses in the system and, unless they are addressed, there will be no barrier between some children and those who would harm them.”
And though most of the coaches and other personnel interviewed showed a willingness to change, the report also stated that some USA Swimming members were somewhat resistant and worried the recommendations were going too far.
The GNCPTC’s recommendations fell under seven categories: policies and guidelines; screening and selection; education and training; monitoring and supervision; recognizing, reporting and responding; grass-roots engagement and feedback; research, victim assistance, task force and responder. Among other things, USA Swimming was encouraged to make all coaches and personnel responsible for reporting suspected abuse — and that such reporting take place whether abuse is suspected to occur in the context of swimming or elsewhere, such as in the home. The GNCPTC also said the swimming organization should establish a victim assistance fund, explore the possibility of incorporating fingerprint-based checks on coaches, and provide training to children of all ages and to parents.
In addition, the report outlined how it believes USA Swimming should extend whistle-blower protection to those reporting suspected abuse. The organization’s coaches’ panel, which in the past would review cases of abuse, should not be put in charge of determining whether abuse took place, the report recommended. “Although coaches are qualified to render an opinion as to whether particular conduct is acceptable within the field of coaching, they are not qualified to determine if an act constitutes physical or psychological abuse,” the report stated.
Further, USA Swimming should develop materials to help abused athletes cooperate with investigations and hearings.
In a teleconference with the media, Vieth said that of the 150 cases he reviewed, all were investigated by USA Swimming, but approximately one-third were not pursued by the organization.
Wielgus noted, “… there are cases that could not move forward based off of insufficient evidence, a noncompliant victim or an unfounded account. All 150 cases reviewed by Victor Vieth in the report were looked into by USA Swimming and these cases were not all specific to abuse.”
Despite the report, there are still calls for USA Swimming’s management to step down, particularly Wielgus. Robert Allard, one of the most outspoken of these and who has represented or explored representing a number of former child athletes against USA Swimming, said the report alone does not resolve the issue. In addition, he calls for a change in leadership and possible criminal charges against the higher-ups, whom he accuses of knowingly protecting criminal coaches.
“Moving forward is only one part of the solution,” said Allard, of the San Jose, Calif.-based firm Corsiglia McMahon & Allard. “The fact remains that to bring justice to the countless past victims of sex abuse, our criminal justice system is built to punish the wrongdoers. … This conduct was known for years, if not decades, by these leaders, and nothing was done against the molesters. There needs to be some accountability there. It’s part of their healing process; it’s part of their sense of needing justice … and there has to be a leadership group in place who is going to be proactive and will act to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. …”
Wielgus said his organization’s leadership will remain in place. “USA Swimming continues to remain confident in its leadership, both volunteer and staff,” he said. “I’m proud of the steps the organization has taken to develop its Safe Sport program. The fact that USA Swimming took the steps to commission this report and bring an independent party to review its Safe Sport efforts says a lot about our commitment to raising awareness and reducing the risk of abuse in our sport.”
In January, California State Sen. Jim Beall, (D-San Jose) introduced two bills that would lengthen the amount of time child sex abuse victims have to press charges and file lawsuits. If passed, Senate Bill 926 would raise the age at which victims can seek prosecution from 28 to 40 years old. Senate Bill 924 addresses lawsuits, proposing that victims have until the age of 40 to sue, rather than the current 26, and that victims have five years from the time the causal link between sexual abuse and psychological damage is discovered, rather than the current three years.
Last year, Beall proposed a similar bill. USA Swimming made headlines by hiring a lobbyist to oppose last year’s SB 131, causing some to draw parallels between it and the Catholic Church. Though the legislation passed both houses, it was vetoed by California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Allard said this year’s bills address a key complaint of USA Swimming’s, namely that last year’s legislation targeted nonprofit organizations. This time around, the law would apply to any organization, he said.