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Report on Sexual Abuse in U.S.A. Gymnastics Urges ‘Culture Change’

The governing body of America’s gymnastics organization has announced recommendations for protecting its athletes from sexual abuse. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
U.S.A. Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, said on Tuesday that it was adopting new recommendations intended to safeguard its athletes, after reports last year that it had routinely failed to notify law enforcement officials about allegations of sexual abuse by its coaches.

“Even one instance of child abuse is one too many,” said Paul Parilla, the chairman of the governing body in a statement published on Tuesday along with details of 70 new recommendations. “U.S.A. Gymnastics is very sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career, and we offer our deepest regrets to any athlete who suffered abuse or mistreatment while participating in the sport.”

The report was prompted by an investigation published by the Indianapolis Star last year. The newspaper had uncovered four instances in which gymnastics officials were warned about suspected abuse by coaches but did not alert the authorities, and it said the coaches had gone on to abuse at least 14 underage gymnasts.

Late last year, U.S.A. Gymnastics commissioned a former federal child sexual abuse prosecutor, Deborah J. Daniels, to conduct an independent review of its policies. During the review, Ms. Daniels and her researchers from Praesidium, a company that specializes in preventing sexual abuse in organizations that serve youth and vulnerable adults, carried out more than 160 interviews with people in the gymnastics community; visited 25 clubs and the National Team Training Center; and attended competitions and camps through last month.

The result of that work was released online in a 100-page report on Tuesday, along with the recommendations, which the governing body’s board of directors said it would adopt to prevent abuse and streamline its policies governing the way it handles reports of it. 

They include prohibiting adults from being alone with minor gymnasts, including sleeping in a hotel room. Adults will also be prohibited from having out-of-program contact with gymnasts via email, text or social media.

While U.S.A. Gymnastics already had some regulations in place, the report said the organization, which oversees the sport in the United States and sets rules and policies for athletes and coaches, needed to put in place what it called a “culture change” in the way it does so.

The recommendations were broken down into 10 areas, including administrative management; education, training and athlete support; reporting of suspected violations; and screening and selection of coaches, volunteers and other adults with access to athletes. The report recommended that it needed to be specific about prohibited behavior, by defining “appropriate” and “inappropriate” conduct in member clubs and by individuals who work with the athletes.
“Most member clubs do not have written guidelines regarding appropriate and inappropriate physical and verbal interactions,” the report said.

It noted in particular how the reporting of alleged abuse has been hampered by the relationship between an athlete and an adult who might have control over his or her career. For example, the report said U.S.A Gymnastics’s procedures for reporting suspected sexual abuse was in the form of a written grievance process by parents and the athletes that was aimed at dispute resolution.

“Young athletes (in their teens or younger) and their parents are highly unlikely to report ongoing abuse to the authority that has so much power over the athlete’s success in the sport,” the report said.
But a big problem is the gymnastics community has been its decentralized nature. Clubs are private businesses, which makes tracking the behavior of coaches uneven if he or she moves to another. “If a club’s management is vigilant, it will check references as well as conduct a background check,” the report said. But those only reveal any criminal convictions, meaning that a new club may not find out about prior abuse or grooming activity.

The abuse charges have put the gymnastics federation under a shadow, particularly last year, when The Star reported revealed that U.S.A. Gymnastics had kept files of complaints involving more than 50 coaches suspected of abusing athletes, yet in many cases failed to alert law enforcement of possible wrongdoing. One of them was a longtime doctor for the American gymnastics team, Lawrence G. Nassar, who was charged in February with 22 charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving at least seven victims.

Ms. Daniels’s report also said one coach accused of abuse had worked in at least 12 clubs in four states. “He left a trail of anguish in his path, in the form of over 15 abused girls whose lives were forever damaged — but clubs continued to hire him, either because they were unaware of the abuse or, in the case of at least one club, reportedly knew but promised to ‘watch’ him.”

Stephen Drew, a Michigan lawyer who represents gymnasts who allege they were abused by Dr. Nassar and emboldened to come forward after the Star report, said some of the new recommendations, such as immediate reporting of suspected abuse, were already law.

But he said the recommendations should be used to create “a clear protocol to document and investigate past abuse complaints — and to initially believe the person.”

“It is hard enough for people to come forward and make a complaint like this,” Mr. Drew added. “Every sign should indicate ‘we are taking this seriously.’”