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USA Gymnastics Ignored Stories of Coaches’ Child Sex Abuse for Years While Athletes Suffered

Top USA Gymnastics officials had files of complaints against four men who were later arrested for molesting several underage girls.

USA Gymnastics ignored multiple allegations of child sexual assault perpetrated by its coaches, allowing now-convicted abusers to molest young gymnasts for years, according to an Indianapolis Star investigation published Thursday. The Indianapolis-based national governing body for gymnastics, which develops the U.S. Olympics roster, abided by a policy that instructed top officials to only contact authorities about sex-abuse allegations if they came directly from a victim or one of her parents.

The Star reports that USA Gymnastics had compiled several accounts of abuse by more than 50 coaches, three of whom are now serving prison sentences for their crimes (and a fourth who killed himself while in jail). In one case, the organization, whose membership comprises 3,000 gyms and 121,000 gymnasts, waited years to report the accusations to law enforcement officials. In most others, it never reported the allegations at all. It is illegal to neglect to report alleged child abuse in every U.S. state; the Star paraphrases a USA Gymnastics representative who claims the organization “follows reporting laws and is doing enough to protect children.”

The four coaches abused 14 underage gymnasts in the years after USA Gymnastics executives were made aware of sex-abuse allegations against them, according to public records. The organization didn’t report Marvin Sharp to the police until four years after someone filed a 2011 complaint accusing Sharp of inappropriate touching and warning that he shouldn’t be around children. Officials finally alerted police when Sharp, 2010’s Women’s Coach of the Year, was 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,” the Star reports. Police say Sharp had thousands of files of child pornography at his home and business; he committed suicide before his case went to trial.

The Star found that USA Gymnastics had amassed a “thick file of complaints” accusing coach Mark Schiefelbein of abuse but never reported him to authorities, allowing him to coach in five different states before molesting a 10-year-old gymnast. The victim’s father says he spoke on the phone with former USA Gymnastics President Robert Colarossi, who told him that the organization couldn’t afford to defend itself against lawsuits brought by any aggrieved accused coaches, so officials were conservative about reporting alleged abuse.

USA Gymnastics also had a file on coach James Bell for five years before he was arrested in 2003 for molesting three Rhode Island girls. He ran away before he could be tried and was rearrested last year; he’s pleaded guilty to those charges. The Star found that there were police reports on Bell dating back to 1990, when a young gymnast in Oregon told the cops that he’d “climbed on top of her and told her he wanted to take off her pants.” The next year, a 10-year-old reported that he’d pinched her breast. Bell coached as a member of USA Gymnastics until his former employer, a YMCA administrator, reported him to the police.

The investigation uncovered at least four allegations made to USA Gymnastics about coach William McCabe, including one from a gym owner in 1998, warning that McCabe should be “locked in a cage before someone is raped.” Authorities say McCabe started molesting a child in 1999 and coached with USA Gymnastics until an 11-year-old gymnast’s mother contacted the FBI in 2006 about inappropriate emails he’d sent to her daughter. He pleaded guilty to sexually exploiting children later that year.

McCabe’s abuses are the basis of a civil suit an anonymous former gymnast has filed against USA Gymnastics, claiming the organization was negligent when it failed to take action on the four complaints against her former coach, allowing him to continue coaching and secretly film her while she changed her clothes.

“USA Gymnastics believes it has a duty to report to law enforcement whenever circumstances warrant,” the organization’s president, Steve Penny, said in a statement about the Star’s report. But in one of the court depositions the investigation cites, Penny elaborated on the policy, and it sounds much shakier: “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are—if you are a third party to some allegation. You know, that lies with the person who has firsthand knowledge.”

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and Olympic gold medalist who’s helped sports institutions investigate and respond to sexual abuse allegations, told the Washington Post that the USA Gymnastics policy is “a surefire way to ignore credible evidence of abuse and to shirk the organization’s responsibility towards their members.” Victims often don’t report abuse until many years later, Hogshead-Makar said, so organizations must rely on accounts from those who notice when a colleague is behaving inappropriately. “Other coaches see more than parents or teammates,” she said. “To ignore signed complaints made by people who witnessed sexual abuse puts athletes at serious risk.”

The Star has filed a motion in the civil suit against USA Gymnastics, requesting that the judge unseal the files of sexual-abuse complaints the organization has kept on other coaches. The records were submitted as evidence in the case but sealed in a judicial order, a violation of the public interest and Georgia law, the Star argues.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.