A policy that allowed gymnasts to be sexually abused by instructors for years after USA Gymnastics received warnings was used by top administrators at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations.
For seven years, a coach in Georgia preyed on young female gymnasts after USA Gymnastics ignored the first of four warnings about him, according to an investigation by the IndyStar.
Former USA Gymnastics officials testified that the organization habitually ignored sexual assault complaints as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or a victim’s parent in a 2013 lawsuit filed by one coach’s victims.
A group of legal professionals and child activists raised concern about this strategy, arguing that the ideal practice is to submit every complaint to the authorities. Every state mandates that people who suspect child abuse report it.
Lisa Ganser, whose daughter brought the Georgia action, which is still being litigated, stated, “USAG failed at this.” “I believe that USA Gymnastics had enough information to have taken action.” “It didn’t have to happen to my daughter and other little girls,” I said.
National governing organization USA Gymnastics produces the U.S. Olympic team and promotes the gymnastics business at all levels, including at the Olympics. Over 121,000 athletes and 3,000 gyms are members. With sponsors like AT&T and Hershey’s, the group calls itself a “big time brand.” The Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions begins this week and will include the best gymnasts from the Rio Olympics, a P.R. blitz that usually results in a spike in gym memberships.
The total number of claims of sexual misconduct received by USA Gymnastics each year was not made public. According to the organization’s documents, more than 50 coaches’ complaint dossiers were kept in an executive office drawer in Indianapolis. Under seal in Ganser’s daughter’s suit, the contents of those files remain a secret. As a part of the USA TODAY Network, IndyStar requested that the materials be made available to the public, and that matter has yet to be decided by the judge.
Despite this, IndyStar was able to locate four instances in which USA Gymnastics received warnings about alleged abuse by coaches but did not make a report to authorities.
After the warnings, at least 14 minor gymnasts were allegedly abused by those coaches, according to police and court records:
After Marvin Sharp was selected as the 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year, USA Gymnastics received a lengthy complaint about him in 2011. It described inappropriate contact with minors and cautioned him to avoid children. Only after being confronted with a new, more troubling complaint against Sharp would USA Gymnastics, four years later, turn Sharp into authorities for questioning. A gymnast’s vagina was touched, her pubic hair was trimmed, and sexually graphic images of her were taken while Sharp was just 12 years old. Last year, shortly after being indicted in Indianapolis federal court, he committed suicide in jail.
Mark Schiefelbein had been accused of assaulting a 10-year-old girl by USA Gymnastics years before he was charged with the crime. In 2002, the girl’s parents contacted the police to report her disappearance, and he repeatedly pierced her with his finger, according to police records. As part of his “training,” he also recorded her open vagina on the video to learn “not to touch her.” Prosecutors obtained data from USA Gymnastics and discovered a history of complaints against Schiefelbein. The family was horrified to learn of this. In 2003, he was found guilty of seven charges of aggravated sexual battery and one count of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor by a jury in Williamson County, Tennessee. He has been in prison for 36 years.
At least five years before his 2003 arrest for assaulting three teenage gymnasts in Rhode Island, USA, Gymnastics filed a sexual misconduct complaint against James Bell. In that file, it’s not apparent what accusations were made. However, IndyStar discovered that authorities had previously arrested Bell in Oregon. An underage gymnast said that Bell had gotten on top of her and said he intended to undo her underwear in 1990, according to the police. She noted that Bell put his hand inside her top and touched her breast when she was a 10-year-old gymnast. When Bell’s old employer in Middletown, Rhode Island, reported him to authorities, he was not charged and was able to continue coaching. In 2004, he was on the run and wasn’t brought back to justice until this year. Bell was sentenced to eight years in December for three counts of child molestation in Newport County, Rhode Island.
Coach William McCabe had at least four complaints lodged against him by USA Gymnastics as early as 1998. McCabe “should be kept in a cage before someone is raped,” one gym owner warned the group in 1998. The charges against him were never reported to law enforcement by the United States Gymnastics Association, and federal authorities say he began molestation of a minor in 1999. When Lisa Ganser went to the FBI with concerns over emails to her then-11-year-old daughter, McCabe continued to coach children for nearly seven more years until she notified the FBI. McCabe was accused of sexually assaulting young gymnasts, secretly filming the girls as they undressed, and then uploading the images of the naked girls online. He admitted to federal charges of sexually exploiting children and making false claims in Savannah, Georgia, in 2006. In prison, he has been sentenced to 30 years.