Joe Bernal, former Harvard and Fordam University swim coach and American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Famer, has been banned from coaching for life by USA Swimming over accusations of sexual misconduct.
Following the decision, at least one of his career honors has been rescinded.
USA Swimming would not reveal specifics about the alleged violations, but only said that Bernal was in violation of its Code of Conduct. Scott Leightman, director of communications and public relations for USA Swimming, said in a statement that the group “is deeply committed to the safety and welfare of all its members” and that the “organization has no tolerance for violations of our Code of Conduct.”
The decision to ban Bernal was based on a review from USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program, which examines complaints alleging misconduct. However, John Leonard, executive director of the ASCA, stated in an email that the Safe Sport Program operates “with radically lower standards than that of the law when it comes to ‘proof.’”
This may explain why the ASCA Board intends to hold a discussion in September about how to respond to USA Swimming Safe Sport decisions (in general, not specifically with Coach Bernal), Leonard said.
He declined to comment on Bernal’s status on ASCA’s Hall of Fame.
Fordham University, however, has removed Bernal from its Hall of Fame. Having coached there from 1966 to 1978, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
A representative from Fordham would not comment about the move. But the university did issue a press statement to its own community, which was quoted in the school’s newspaper, The Fordham Ram:
“To leave in place Mr. Bernal’s honors would send the wrong message to our current and former student athletes. Though Fordham regrets having to strip Mr. Bernal of his athletics honors, its first responsibility is to the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of the University community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who may have been the target of sexual misconduct.”
It also stated that the allegations of sexual misconduct were made after Bernal was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Bernal could not be located for comment.
This continues a years-long issue with swim coaches and sexual misconduct allegations. In 2010, a civil lawsuit was filed against USA Swimming and other organizations on behalf of a 15-year-old girl who was abused by her swim coach. The suit alleged that dozens of coaches and officials affiliated with the organization sexually abused young athletes across the nation and that USA Swimming failed to do proper background screening. At the start of that same year, Andrew King, former head swim coach of San Jose Aquatics, was charged with sex abuse and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
And recently, Stephen James Duwel, a former Northwest Arkansas swim coach and volunteer swim coach at Bentonville High School was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sex-related crimes involving minors.
USA Swimming also was accused of trying to change California laws so it would become more difficult to take punitive measures against institutions when sexual abuse is found to occur at the hands of its members.
Throughout this string of events, USA Swimming has been under fire, with calls for its executive director, Chuck Wielgus, to step down.
Jonathan Little, an attorney who has represented swimmers claiming abuse by USA Swimming coaches, said the organization is not doing all it can to prevent the problem.
“I don’t know the Joe Bernal situation…,” he said. “But I know that USA Swimming has a secret file of coaches they know to be sex offenders.”
He said the organization has a history of withholding information regarding known sex offenders and sees no indication that they’re going to change.
“If they want to change, tell us who’s on the flagged list. That’d be a good place to start.”
As of press time, no legal action has been taken against Bernal.