USA Swimming

It's a move that some are calling self-serving. Earlier this year, the governing body for the sport of swimming hired a lobbyist to combat legislation aimed at increasing the statute of limitations for molestation victims to sue organizations whose employees or members abused them.

With its position, USA Swimming has attracted parallels between itself and the Catholic Church, with some saying the organization is seeking to protect itself at the cost of victims.

In its most recent form, California Senate Bill 131 would create a one-year litigation window for certain individuals who had gone beyond a time limit to sue. At press time, the bill had passed the California Senate and moved on to the Assembly.

Victim advocates say more time is needed for molestation survivors because they’re often unaware of the link between the abuse and long-term problems until well into adulthood.

“Survivors of sexual abuse have greater incidence of drug and alcohol addiction, sex addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder [and other problems], but oftentimes those conditions don’t manifest themselves until adulthood,” said Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, the Washington, D.C., organization that sponsored the bill. “When they make that connection between the abuse and the resulting harm, that’s when the clock starts ticking.”

Additionally, many victim advocates believe some organizations that employed accused molesters take advantage of the statute of limitations by withholding records showing they knew about the problem and/or stalling until time runs out.

Because of this concern, and as a result of high-profile cases such as the one involving Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, some states have proposed bills to adjust — or even remove — their statutes of limitations. Florida, Minnesota and Illinois eliminated theirs entirely, with four other states weighing legislation that would have a similar effect. Arkansas overturned its statute of limitations on criminal cases last February.

Currently, California law states that individuals alleging abuse must file lawsuits against accused perpetrators, and the organizations employing them, by the age of 26, or within three years of realizing the link between the abuse and the damages. This three-year window is referred to as the “delayed discovery rule,” and invoking it requires proving when the realization took place.

As originally proposed, SB 131 would have expanded the statute of limitations for filing claims without the need to invoke the delayed discovery rule until the victim turned 48.

Over time the bill was whittled down to the one-year window. Now its main purpose is to provide an opportunity to people who had been denied the chance to sue when they turned 26 before the delayed discovery rule was enacted in 2002.

In response to the bill, USA Swimming hired lobbying firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni to oppose it. The Orange County Register, which broke the story in July, quoted sources saying USA Swimming may be vulnerable to lawsuits, considering the sex scandals that have plagued the organization the past few years.

Commenters on swimming websites questioned the decision. “Not saying that USA Swimming isn’t fighting for what is right … but using a lobbying firm?” wrote a commenter identified as Concerned Coach. “I mean … use your Olympic nobility and fight for what is right the honorable way.”

Some believe USA Swimming is merely trying to cover itself at the cost of victims. Others went so far as to draw parallels between it and another prominent organization that is lobbying against the bill.

“I think USA Swimming is setting itself up as the Catholic Church of youth sports, with an equal commitment to youth protection,” Dion said.

USA Swimming’s executive director, Chuck Wielgus, didn't give credence to the comparison. “I think it’s a very easy, headline-grabbing parallel to draw for those that ... are opposed to our organization,” he said.

When news of the lobbyist broke, USA Swimming issued a statement saying it opposed SB 131 in part because the language doesn’t open the window for lawsuits against public entities or the accused perpetrators.

In an interview with Aquatics International, Wielgus stood by the statement. “It’s our belief that this proposed bill is directly targeted at nonprofit organizations like YMCAs and national governing bodies in sports,” he said. “And we just think that’s very unfair, especially when the majority of abuse, we believe, takes place not necessarily in our nonprofit organizations but in the public schools and the public recreation programs. So that is just evidence to us that there is clearly a motive behind this proposed bill by trial lawyers who are looking to target organizations such as ours.”

But the bill’s author, Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), said public entities are covered in other laws. And Dion said there’s less need to apply these laws to public entities because they are compelled by the Freedom of Information Act to produce the needed records and, therefore, can’t cover up the crimes.

As for the need to include perpetrators in the legislation, Beall said the victims this bill is meant to protect currently can file suit against individuals if they do it within three years of the delayed discovery.

In addition to concerns about whom the bill applies to, Wielgus raised the issue of how such a law could affect USAS members. “It’s virtually impossible for an organization like USA Swimming to defend itself against something that may have happened decades ago and, in some cases, before USA Swimming even existed,” he said. “Records from decades ago may not even still exist.

“We have more than 50,000 members and 366 swim clubs in California, so we have an obligation to serve their best interests as well as our own.”

These concerns have been borne out by the Catholic Church. In 2003, California approved a similar one-year window in which the statute of limitations was lifted. In that period, 800 lawsuits citing clergy abuse were filed against the church, according to National Public Radio.

But Sen. Beall said the burden of proof becomes heavy for those plaintiffs. “It’s just as difficult to prove things happened decades ago,” he said. “All this bill does is allow these people to have their day in court.”

For its part, USA Swimming has been proactive about protecting young athletes, Wielgus said. In 2010, the organization instituted the Safe Sport program, meant to prevent crimes against its members. Recently, the group announced it had hired the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center to review the program, with results expected in January 2014.

“We may be only one of two national governing bodies … that publishes a list of individuals who have been suspended for life,” he said. “To date, there are 87 individuals on that list, and we’re not proud of that, but it’s certainly evidence that this is an organization that takes inappropriate conduct very seriously and advocates for victims.

“We’re not in opposition to compensation for victims, and we think there might be a better route to go than this proposed bill. We’d be very comfortable with some sort of alternative arrangement that would provide for compensation for victims while at the same time limiting attorneys’ fees.”

Nielsen Merksamer declined to comment for this story.