USA Gymnastics has spent years protecting coaches accused of sexual assault against gymnasts, a new investigation reveals. The Olympics-affiliated organization, which is the governing body of gymnastics in the United States and has more than 121,000 athletes and 3,000 gyms as members, has repeatedly let allegations go uninvestigated, accumulated thick dossiers of accusations, and failed to report complaints to authorities.
An investigation led by the Indianapolis newspaper the IndyStar shows that USA Gymnastics knew of more than 50 different coaches who had allegedly assaulted or harassed gymnasts, but kept the reports in a file in the organization's executive office in Indianapolis. According to the IndyStar, the contents of those reports is still a secret.
Despite the secrecy of the reports, IndyStar was able to uncover multiple cases where coaches who had been accused of assault, and not reported to the police, were later convicted of further abuse after initial complaints had been ignored. Each of the four convictions involved multiple child victims and several years of abuse.
One victim of abuse by a coach filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics in 2013, alleging that the organization was negligent in its failure to report the coach when they first learned of his actions. According to the IndyStar, two former USA Gymnastics officials have admitted under oath that the organization "routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim's parent."
Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the national organization Victim Rights Law Center, tells Broadly that that "is a terrible protocol." Especially with people with access to young children.
"Even when it's hearsay," she says, "I think that you absolutely need to do due diligence and conduct an investigation immediately to see if the hearsay is credible."
Bruno acknowledges that such "hearsay" might really be hearsay but reiterates the importance of formal investigations to determine the truth. "Big companies like USA Gymnastics think, If this is true, what will this do to our reputation? It's easier to sweep allegations under rug. But that leads to more people being abused. In every single realm where sexual assault is concerned—colleges, high schools, companies—when they sweep allegations under the rug, more and more victims will be victimized. There is no positive outcome, except that it saves the reputation of the organization."
Though it doesn't look great for an organization when news reports reveal that it has attempted to sweep years of sexual misconduct under the rug.
Children are especially vulnerable to abuse in cases like this, Bruno says. "Most parents are concerned about strangers abusing their children, but it's much more common for it to come from a teacher or coach, or someone who has developed a relationship and trust with the child. In these cases, a child squelches their fear and desire to tell someone because of the trust they have. That's precisely why someone in a position of power goes after a child or someone who trusts them."
For athletes who training competitively at high levels, this power dynamic can be even stronger, and children can be even less inclined to come forward.
"Because they have a psyche that is developed to be an Olympic athlete, they know how to push down pain, ignore something, and keep their focus on something else," Bruno says. "The issue with rape and sexual assault is that, when you're a child or even an adult, you can't push that down. It's so traumatic."