Courtney Kiehl

A 20-year toll: 368 gymnasts allege sexual exploitation

Courtney Kiehl
A 20-year toll: 368 gymnasts allege sexual exploitation

A 12-year-old gymnast molested by an Olympic coach during “therapy” sessions.

Children as young as 6 secretly photographed nude by coaches.

Coaches who slipped a finger inside girls’ leotards.

A coach having almost daily sex with a 14-year-old at one of the country’s most prestigious gyms.

No one knows exactly how many children have been sexually exploited in America’s gyms over the past 20 years. But an IndyStar-USA TODAY Network review of hundreds of police files and court cases across the country provides for the first time a measure of just how pervasive the problem is.

At least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics. That’s a rate of one every 20 days. And it's likely an undercount.

IndyStar previously reported that top officials at USA Gymnastics, one of the nation’s most prominent Olympic organizations, failed to alert police to many allegations of sexual abuse that occurred on their watch and stashed complaints in files that have been kept secret. But the problem is far worse. A nine-month investigation found that predatory coaches were allowed to move from gym to gym, undetected by a lax system of oversight, or dangerously passed on by USA Gymnastics-certified gyms.

USA Gymnastics calls itself a leader in child safety. In a statement responding to IndyStar’s questions, it said: “Nothing is more important to USA Gymnastics, the Board of Directors and CEO Steve Penny than protecting athletes, which requires sustained vigilance by everyone — coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials. We are saddened when any athlete has been harmed in the course of his or her gymnastics career.”

The organization noted several initiatives aimed at creating a safer environment, including the use of criminal background checks for coaches, the practice of publishing the names of coaches banned from its competitions, and programs that provide educational materials to member gyms.

But IndyStar’s investigation found:

• USA Gymnastics focuses its efforts to stop sexual abuse on educating members instead of setting strict ground rules and enforcing them. It says it can't take aggressive action because member gyms are independent businesses and because of restrictions in federal law pertaining to Olympic organizations. Both are contentions others dispute.

• Gym owners have a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting abuse. Some fear harm to their business. When confronted with evidence of abuse, many quietly have fired the suspected abusers and failed to warn future employers. Some of those dangerous coaches continued to work with children.

• Some coaches are fired at gym after gym without being tracked or flagged by USA Gymnastics, or losing their membership with the organization. USA Gymnastics often has no idea when a coach is fired by a gym and no systematic way to keep track. Ray Adams was fired or forced to resign from six gyms in four states. Yet some gym owners hired Adams, believing his record was clean.

• Though the vast majority of officials put children’s well-being ahead of business and competition, some officials at every level have not. Coaches suspected of abuse kept their jobs as long as they accepted special monitoring. Others were allowed to finish their season before being fired. In 2009, Doug Boger was named a USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year and was sent to international competition while under investigation for alleged sexual abuse.

• Victims’ stories have been treated with skepticism by USA Gymnastics officials, gym owners, coaches and parents. Former gymnasts Charmaine Carnes and Jennifer Sey said they felt pressured by Penny not to pursue allegations of abuse by prominent coaches Don Peters and Boger. Carnes said she thought Penny tried to keep the claims about Boger quiet for as long as possible to protect the sport’s image and win championships, a characterization that USA Gymnastics disputes.

 

 

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An IndyStar investigation found that at least 368 athletes alleged some form of sexual abuse in gymnastics in the last two decades.Nate Chute/IndyStar

In its statement to IndyStar, USA Gymnastics said it is constantly striving to improve.

In the wake of IndyStar’s August investigation, USA Gymnastics hired a former prosecutor to evaluate its bylaws and offer advice on how to strengthen its policies. It also established a policy review panel on its board of directors.

“USA Gymnastics is proud of the work it has done to address and guard against child sexual abuse,” the organization said in materials provided to IndyStar.

USA Gymnastics also said it's playing a central role in developing a U.S. Center for SafeSport to oversee education programs and investigate and adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct for all U.S. Olympic Committee governing bodies.

USA Gymnastics has touted its many successes, including years of expansion and recent domination by Team USA at the Olympics. But administrators in the Indianapolis-based organization have declined numerous interview requests from IndyStar.

Penny, who has been president since 2005, declined to be interviewed for this and other stories. Neither the chairman of USA Gymnastics’ board, Paul Parilla, nor board membersresponded to interview requests.

During IndyStar’s investigation, USA Gymnastics agreed to one interview with its lawyer and public relations chief. Otherwise, officials have accepted only written questions and responded with often incomplete written replies. Many questions have gone unanswered.

USA Gymnastics and Penny have taken other steps to keep details of abuse cases secret. The organization as well as individual member gyms have entered confidentiality agreements as part of settlements in negligence cases with gymnasts claiming abuse.

And in court, USA Gymnastics has fought the release of documents that would show how Penny and other top officials have dealt with molestation allegations.

IndyStar went to court in Georgia and won a case in August to unseal depositions and sexual misconduct complaint files on 54 coaches. The Georgia Supreme Court confirmed that ruling in October and ordered the documents to be made public. But USA Gymnastics is continuing to fight, delaying the release.

Many who want reforms in Olympic sports said they are frustrated by the lack of meaningful action.

"It saddens me because I love our sport,” said Molly Shawen-Kollmann, a former member of the U.S. national team and current coach in the Cincinnati area. “This is not indicative of who we want to be. As an organization, they aren't doing their job."

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is an Olympic gold-medal swimmer and attorney who is now CEO of the advocacy group Champion Women.
(Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

“There's paranoia at all levels... It's hard to take a stand.”

MIKE JACKI, FORMER USA GYMNASTICS PRESIDENT

“It’s very serious,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer and attorney who is now CEO of the advocacy group Champion Women. "It's just too easy for coaches to keep getting hired and hired and hired. Sexual abuse thrives on the fact that people are embarrassed about the topic, ashamed to talk about it, and they keep quiet about it. And that's exactly why molesting coaches keep getting hired at the next place. Nobody talks about a coach that is inappropriate with athletes; the coach quietly moves away and gets hired someplace else."

Mike Jacki, USA Gymnastics president from 1983 to 1994, noted that gymnastics is a sport in which winners and losers are determined by subjective judging. An outspoken gym owner or coach might fear gymnasts will be left off elite teams, including the Olympic team, which is chosen by a committee except for the all-around winner at the Olympic trials. For athletes with even modest ambition at the local level, it's wise not to make enemies.

"There's paranoia at all levels," Jacki said. "It's hard to take a stand."

Out of Balance

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The warning a number gives you

 

Evidence of the hundreds of gymnasts exploited by their coaches over the years is buried in court documents and police reports across the nation. Often the children are mentioned by their initials or identified as “Victim 1.”

To tally the number of potential victims, IndyStar reporters scoured thousands of pages of public records and two decades of news stories.

Reporters also interviewed more than 100 people, including gym owners, athletes, coaches, police officers, prosecutors and child advocates, as well as survivors who came forward after the newspaper’s original investigation in August. More than 80 others declined to talk publicly.

All told, 115 adults at every level of the sport, from respected Olympic mentors to novices working with recreational gymnasts, were accused. The alleged abuse happened in every part of the U.S. — from Maine to California, Washington to Florida, and across the Midwest.

In Michigan, longtime girls gymnastics coach Phillip Paige Bishop was convicted in 2010 of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for molesting a 10-year-old girl. Bishop went to prison and was required to register as a sex offender.

In Pennsylvania, coach Keith R. Callen was arrested in May and charged with sexual assault by a sports official and other counts in connection with alleged incidents involving a female teenage gymnast over a two-year period starting in 2012. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

In California, dentist and gymnastics coach David Reiakvam pleaded guilty in 2012 to molesting two girls who lived with the coach and his wife. One, an elite acrobatic gymnast, said he began raping her at age 13. The other said at sentencing, “It’s not the predator in the bushes you need to worry about. It’s those in positions of power and authority … who harm precious and vulnerable children.”

Other victims included casual athletes and elite-level performers such as Olympians. They were teenagers and preteens. The youngest was 6. Almost all of them were girls.

They encountered the men accused of abusing them everywhere from a Rhode Island YMCA to the famous Karolyi Ranch in Texas, where USA Gymnastics sends its top female athletes to train.

It’s unclear how many of the alleged victims and coaches were USA Gymnastics members, because the organization does not disclose that information.

Many of the girls said they trusted their coaches to do the right thing. Some believed they were in love with their coaches. Others blamed themselves for the abuse. Several had Olympic dreams, which their coaches exploited. A number of the coaches befriended the parents of the children they abused. Some victims eventually became afraid of their abusers.

Former coach Jeffrey Bettman, who pleaded guilty this year to child pornography charges, hid cameras in changing rooms in gyms in California and Oregon over the course of a decade. William McCabe pleaded guilty in 2006 to doing the same thing in his Georgia gym.

Marvin Sharp, the 2010 national Women's Coach of the Year, is walked from court at the City-County Building in Indianapolis on Aug. 26, 2015. The former Olympic coach from Indianapolis was charged with posing girls as young as 6 with their genitals exposed, according to court records. He killed himself in jail.
(Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar 2015 file photo)

Marvin Sharp, a former Olympic coach from Indianapolis, orchestrated what parents and gymnasts believed were legitimate photo shoots. But in 2015 he was charged with posing girls as young as 6 with their genitals exposed, according to court records. He killed himself in jail.

Some victims regarded their coaches as parental figures. They were eager to please the coaches — even if it meant giving in to sexual demands.

Others, such as the 14-year-old girl sexually assaulted by former coach Christopher Wagoner in Texas, were convinced they were involved in legitimate romantic relationships with adults entrusted with their care.

USA Gymnastics member Kenneth Arnold, 28, was arrested in November after he was accused of inappropriately touching young girls at a gym in Zionsville, Indiana. Arnold, who has pleaded not guilty to child molestation and battery charges, is accused of pulling back the leotards of two gymnasts and touching their vaginas during gymnastics training.

And just last week, police arrested Joseph Hannon, 21, on an allegation of predatory criminal sexual contact with a 9-year-old girl at a USA Gymnastics member gym in Sycamore, Illinois. Police said Hannon, whose attorney said he will enter a not guilty plea Jan. 6, was on probation for a felony drug offense when he allegedly abused the girl.

The number of sexual abuse cases identified by IndyStar was surprising given how little publicity the issue of sex abuse in gymnastics has received, said Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a research and advocacy group based at the University of Pennsylvania.

It also concerned her that no one had bothered to count until now.

“I’m sad for all the parents and athletes who didn’t have the kind of warning that that number gives you,” Hamilton said. “But my guess is that it’s a pretty severe undercount.”

Hamilton and other experts said the actual number of victims is likely far higher — perhaps three to five times more — because the vast majority never come forward to report their abuser. Reporting rates, Hamilton said, may be even lower in sports because of the power coaches have over their athletes.

USA Gymnastics said it did not know how many children have alleged sexual abuse against its members.

Not all gyms and gymnasts in America are members of USA Gymnastics. But the Indianapolis-based national governing body is the country’s largest gymnastics organization, controlling the path to the Olympics, setting rules and policies that govern the sport, and promoting gymnastics on the grass-roots level. USA Gymnastics’ membership includes more than 125,000 athletes; 25,000 professional members, which includes coaches; and 3,450 clubs.

The organization's statement also said: “We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person’s life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction and cooperate fully with law enforcement.”

About the 'Out of Balance' series

A painful process

 

Yet several people interviewed by IndyStar described the culture fostered by USA Gymnastics as being obsessed with winning, protective of coaches and dismissive of sexual assault charges leveled by athletes.

Former gymnast Charmaine Carnes told IndyStar she felt discouraged by Penny’s reaction to a sexual abuse complaint she and seven other women filed with the organization in 2009. Penny never told her not to pursue the complaint, she said, but she called his response “demeaning.”

“You can’t win championships... if you’re busting all your best coaches.”

CHARMAINE CARNES, FORMER GYMNAST

The women came forward after learning Boger was still coaching more than two decades after he was charged with sexually abusing a gymnast in the early 1980s. He was acquitted on that charge.

In their 2009 letter to Penny, the women said they all had been mentally, physically or sexually abused by Boger in the 1980s. They asked that USA Gymnastics revoke his membership. Boger, who did not respond to IndyStar’s request for comment, previously denied the abuse allegations.

Carnes described the investigative process by officials at USA Gymnastics as “long, arduous, painful,” and at times so adversarial that the women felt as if they were being accused. It “seemed like he thought they were exaggerating,” she said of Penny.

The women said they believed they weren’t being taken seriously. As the investigation was underway, USA Gymnastics named Boger a national Coach of the Year and sent him with the U.S. team to the 2009 World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“I would put that person on some sort of leave, some sort of something where they’re not continuing to train young gymnasts while this investigation is going on,” Carnes said. “But Mr. Penny didn’t do that.”

In its statement to IndyStar, USA Gymnastics explained that “the individuals responsible for the Coach of the Year award were not aware that Mr. Boger was under investigation.”

Carnes said she thinks Penny tried to keep the claims about Boger quiet as long as he could to protect the sport’s image.

“You can’t win championships,” she said, “if you’re busting all your best coaches.”

Jennifer Sey, the 1986 all-around national champion, described a similar experience. In 2011, several gymnasts said Don Peters, who headed the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, had sexually abused them years earlier.

Sey said she was not abused by Peters, who has denied the allegations, but when victims came forward, she offered them support.

“They started out writing nice letters, asking for help and engagement,” Sey said. Instead, the accusers faced pushback from the USA Gymnastics chief. Ultimately, she said, the women went to the Orange County (Calif.) Register newspaper: “That was the reason it got pushed to that — they didn’t get cooperation from Mr. Penny,” she said.

After a series of stories published in 2011, USA Gymnastics banned Boger and Peters from participating in its competitions. Neither was criminally charged, in part because the statute of limitations had elapsed.

USA Gymnastics wrote that the ways in which Carnes and Sey characterized the investigation “do not reflect our recollection, and we work to treat anyone in these circumstances with dignity and respect.”

USA Gymnastics also said the SafeSport center, set to open early next year, should improve child safety. But some child advocates fear the center is more about public relations than combating abuse. They say the U.S. Olympic Committee’s desire to maintain a golden image may conflict with the goal of exposing child abuse in its ranks.

“It detracts from the stories they want to tell,” said Hogshead-Makar. "'We are winning in the Olympics and look at these amazing stories and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome, and the triumph.’ Nobody is more of a sucker for those stories than I am. But, at the same time, we have to make sure sport is safe for everyone."

'A passionate and energetic advocate'

 

When asked why USA Gymnastics does not take a more aggressive approach to weeding out potential wrongdoing, many gymnasts and some current and former employees of USA Gymnastics cited Penny.

Penny, whose long career in sports management included stints at USA Cycling and the Seattle Mariners, came to USA Gymnastics in 1999 as vice president of marketing with the goal of growing the sport.

During his tenure, the organization’s elite athletes experienced their greatest successes on the international stage. USA Gymnastics has signed up a growing list of big-time sponsors, including Kellogg’s and Hershey’s, which have pumped millions of dollars into a national governing body that was deep in debt when it arrived in Indianapolis in 1983.

USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny during the women's gymnastics U.S. Olympic team trials at SAP Center, San Jose, California, Friday, July 8, 2016. 
(Photo: Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports, Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Penny, who was paid $557,867 in 2014, according to most recently available public tax records, has been highly protective of the USA Gymnastics brand. He shares this driving mantra often in interviewsWin medals, grow the sport, improve customer service and increase visibility.

Some described the physically imposing CEO as domineering, not accepting of criticism and sometimes quick to anger.

When asked whether those were fair characterizations, USA Gymnastics issued the following statement, which it said should be attributed to Parilla, the board chairman: “Steve is a passionate and energetic advocate for our athletes, members and our sport. Steve’s executive style has evolved as he has grown professionally and he is viewed as an effective leader for the organization. He has always been open to feedback from the board, has its full support, and today leads USA Gymnastics in a highly professional manner.”

In more than a dozen cases reviewed by IndyStar, gymnasts, coaches, gym owners and others expressed disappointment with USA Gymnastics' response when they contacted the organization about potential sexual misconduct. Some said they never received a reply.

One was Jennifer Baldwin, a detective at the Redmond, Washington, Police Department, who was investigating sexual abuse allegations against a gym owner and coach in 2003.

“I made at least 3 calls to US Gymnastics requesting someone call me regarding Child Abuse with no return calls,” the detective wrote in her report.

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Stopping short of setting the standard

 

Over the years, USA Gymnastics has taken some steps to combat child abuse, but it has been reluctant to enforce strong standards for its member coaches and gyms. Instead, its efforts rest primarily in publishing information and offering advice to its more than 3,400 member clubs.

USA Gymnastics established a list of coaches and others who are “permanently ineligible for membership” in 1997. The ban prevented coaches from participating in competitions but not from working in member gyms.

A decade later, it began requiring background checks for coaches. In 2009, USA Gymnastics adopted a participant welfare policy, which outlines requirements and recommendations for creating a safe environment.

In 2011, rocked by allegations about Boger and Peters, USA Gymnastics stopped allowing coaches banned from its competitions to work in its member gyms.

“Member clubs are provided with a number of resources regarding business best practices, including Safe Sport,” USA Gymnastics said in its statement. But the narrow focus on education fails to close a loophole that has allowed more than one sexual predator to move through USA Gymnastics gyms, the IndyStar investigation found.

'There's got to be something'

 

IndyStar uncovered instances in which coaches — who were later convicted of sexual abuse — had been fired from multiple gyms for violating rules recommended by USA Gymnastics. Yet, again and again, they retained their membership and were able to find jobs in other USA Gymnastics gyms.

James Bell, who pleaded guilty to child molestation last December, worked at gyms in Oregon and Rhode Island. Ray Adams was fired from gyms in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio and Florida. William McCabe was fired from two gyms in Florida before pleading guilty in Georgia to sexual exploitation of children.

Jill Hill, former owner of Southern Oregon Gymnastics Academy in Medford, argues that USA Gymnastics, as the sport’s national governing body, is the only entity in a position to provide enough oversight to protect children from mobile predators.

“There’s got to be something,” she said, “where we have more knowledge than we have right now.”

Yet USA Gymnastics makes no effort to track fired coaches moving through its system of independent gyms, or to enforce many of the rules it recommends for its members.

It insists that that responsibility lies solely with its gym owners.

As a result, USA Gymnastics often does not find out about problems its members have been dealing with for years until it is too late. “Member clubs are independent businesses,” its statement said, “and more often than not, USA Gymnastics learns of issues pertaining to sexual misconduct once an arrest has been made.”

Hogshead-Makar and others say that is not an acceptable arrangement.

Hogshead-Makar said all USA Gymnastics members should be required to notify the organization when they fire a coach for a violation of USA Gymnastics rules regarding athlete safety.

She said the governing body also should require gyms to adopt specific safety measures as a condition of membership. The organization could, for example, prohibit certain behaviors often used by pedophiles to groom children, such as gift-giving, private massages and personal contact outside the gym.

"Athletes should know these norms; that they're in place to protect them, and that only a bad coach would break these rules," she said. "The Olympic committee and national governing bodies have to set a standard, say what the rules are, and then they have to have a mechanism to enforce those rules. If they aren't willing to enforce the rules, it's all a lot of talk."

Rather than accepting that oversight responsibility, USA Gymnastics has steadfastly denied in court filings and responses to IndyStar that it has any legal responsibility for the actions of coaches at its member gyms. Officials insist that the gyms set their own standards.

Penny also testified in a 2014 deposition that officials have to move carefully on sexual abuse complaints “because the coach is as much a member as the athlete” and the possibility of false allegations leading to a witch hunt is “very real.”

USA Gymnastics officials also have said the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act limits the actions they can take against coaches because it requires due process before a coach’s membership can be revoked.

"Under the Sports Act, USAG can adopt this legal posture, but the law doesn't require a national governing body to adopt this 'hands-off' policy," Hogshead-Makar said.

Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer who has studied and taught the Sports Act, finds the reluctance to use the process in the Sports Act specious. She said false accusations are made, but they are rare. A coach's or athlete's due process rights are designed to weed out the false accusations. And private organizations such as USA Gymnastics, she added, have every right to set conditions on membership as long as they’re enforced equally.

“If they want to,” she said, “they can say you have to have a purple lollipop every day if you want to be a member of our organization." USAG could revoke a coach's membership for not having that purple lollipop, she said, so long as it enforces the rules consistently and provides due process.

Other youth organizations do more

 

Any number of reforms could help, experts say. In the wake of their own sex abuse scandals, the Boy Scouts of America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted restrictions that exceed those of USA Gymnastics.

Both organizations require background checks for all volunteers who come in contact with children. USA Gymnastics requires background checks on professional members, such as coaches and judges, but not others, including gym owners. A gym can attain membership with as few as one professional member.

The Catholic Church also bans its dioceses from entering into confidentiality agreements in the settlement of abuse claims, unless the victim requests it. Such settlements, which often ban disclosure of payment amounts and details about an organization’s handling of sex abuse allegations, can hide incidents that enable abuse to continue.

Nevertheless, some gyms have entered into such agreements after negligence lawsuits were filed. And so has USA Gymnastics.

In two lawsuits filed in Washington in 2005 and 2006, USA Gymnastics denied responsibility for a child’s abuse. The organization settled with the plaintiffs after conducting a secret mock trial, in effect, asking a focus group to consider the case “to determine liability risk and monetary exposure,” according to case records. Those documents revealed the value of one of the cases “would be approximately one million dollars.”

USA Gymnastics said both settlements included confidentiality clauses requested by the former gymnasts. But it declined to answer when asked whether it would join the Catholic Church in banning confidentiality agreements that were not requested by the plaintiff.

One of USA Gymnastics’ most prestigious members, World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) in Dallas, also settled a negligence suit brought by a woman whose coach, Chris Wagoner, pleaded guilty to having sex with her when she was 14 years old. USA Gymnastics was initially a defendant but later was dismissed from the lawsuit, which was settled by the remaining parties in 2008. The plaintiff told IndyStar she signed a confidentiality agreement.

WOGA is co-owned by Valeri Liukin, whom USA Gymnastics promoted in September to its highest-profile position, leading the American Olympic team as women's national team coordinator. Liukin's attorney told IndyStar, "WOGA had no knowledge of inappropriate conduct on the part of Wagoner until his arrest."

Hamilton, the founder of CHILD USA, said “a couple of just minimal requirements” would go a long way toward better protecting children.

First, no coach should be allowed to be alone with an athlete. It’s a recommendation USA Gymnastics shares with gym owners and coaches, but not an absolute prohibition.

Second, Hamilton said, is a need for annual, mandatory “high-quality training” for every coach, athlete and parent. She also said it needs to be done in person, not online.

Repetition is important, she said: “By the time their kid is 12 or 13, and it really matters, the parent should be able to recite those presentations on their own.”

USA Gymnastics does not require annual training for all athletes and parents to recognize and respond to sexual abuse.

A case in Oregon shows what happens when gym owners are largely left to deal with potential abusive coaches on their own.

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Moving from gym to gym

 

Over more than a decade starting in 2000, longtime coach Jeffrey Bettman installed secret cameras in changing rooms in gyms in Oregon and California.

According to court records, Bettman made 469 videos of 49 gymnasts he coached, many of them naked or partially naked. The girls ranged in age from 8 to 16. Bettman also produced 220 still images of the girls, zooming in on their genitals, according to authorities. He also was accused of molesting girls, but he was not prosecuted on those allegations, which he denied.

Before all that came to light, Bettman had been sued in California on allegations of sexually abusing a female gymnast. The suit was dismissed, but he was fired from at least two other gyms for what amounted to creepy behavior.

Jeffrey Bettman hugs a girl from the gym where he coached in Oregon. Bettman is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for child pornography. Authorities say he secretly recorded video and still images of at least 49 gymnasts as they changed clothes.
(Photo: ©Jill Hill)

This was a typical problem encountered by gym owners: Gyms fire coaches for things that are widely recognized to be warning signs of abuse but don’t rise to criminal behavior. No one keeps track of the firings, and gym owners are loath to defame a coach when someone calls for a reference. A problem coach can move from gym to gym for years, exploiting countless children.

When Bettman arrived in Medford in 2004, he seemed affable and intelligent, according to former gym owner Jill Hill. Later, she said, she noticed him pulling pre-adolescent girls onto his lap, kissing their foreheads and holding them with their legs wrapped around his waist.

Hill fired Bettman in 2008. Shortly afterward, a parent told her Bettman had molested her child. She was going to police. Authorities ultimately said they had too little evidence to file charges.

In the meantime, Hill said, she discovered that Bettman was working at another gym in Grants Pass, Oregon. Like many other gym owners, Hill said she alerted USA Gymnastics. She not only contacted the state director, but also said she called Kathy Kelly, then director of the women's program at USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis.

“I said, ‘OK, there’s an ongoing investigation and, as a USAG member, I’m a club member, isn’t it the responsibility of USAG to help protect the kids?” Hill recalled of their conversation.

At that time, Hill did not know about Bettman’s hoard of photographs, but the behaviors she said she described were warning signs listed on USA Gymnastics’ website. Violating those behaviors, however, carries no consequences under USA Gymnastics bylaws.

“She said she completely understood,” Hill said of her conversation with Kelly, “but her hands were tied.”

Kelly is no longer at USA Gymnastics and declined a request for comment.

“I vividly recall telling her that USAG's ‘background check’ for the professional certification was flawed in that it only flagged those convicted of felonies and did nothing for coaches who were slipping through the cracks and changing gyms to avoid further scrutiny,” Hill told IndyStar.

Bettman kept coaching.

During that time, he secretly photographed 11 more girls, according to police.

Four years later, in 2012, a federal child pornography sting snared Bettman after he shared child pornography online.

Investigators discovered his cache of gymnastics images and identified 49 gymnasts he had coached in two states. He had labeled the videos with his victims’ initials.

Bettman pleaded guilty in January to 11 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, and one count of distribution, receipt and possession of child pornography. He is serving a 25-year term in federal prison.

Officials at USA Gymnastics told IndyStar it “was aware the matter had been reported to law enforcement and monitored the situation. We then learned of his arrest and took the appropriate steps.” USA Gymnastics placed Bettman on its list of banned members earlier this year.

Jeffrey Bettman hugs a girl from the gym where he coached in Oregon. Bettman is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for child pornography. Authorities say he secretly recorded video and still images of at least 49 gymnasts as they changed clothes. (Photo: ©Jill Hill)

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Betrayal of trust

“I will never like being touched or physically embraced by others.”

A VICTIM OF FORMER COACH JEFFREY BETTMAN

Experts say it can take a lifetime for a sexual abuse survivor to heal.

One of the girls victimized by Bettman described a situation reflected again and again across the country. “Jeff was closer to me than any uncle I have, a runner up for ‘dad’ or ‘grandpa’ if this makes sense,” she wrote to the judge.

“But Jeff broke that bond/trust and left me feeling betrayed, emotionally and sexually abused, taken advantage of, and made my personal growth a difficult one that I have struggled with for several years.”

The stress drove her to an eating disorder by the time she was in seventh grade. Bettman made her hate her body, the girl wrote, even though she weighed only 89 pounds.

Now in college, the young woman said she remains haunted by fear that nude pictures he secretly took of her will someday show up on the internet. And she has difficulty maintaining relationships.

“I will never like being touched or physically embraced by others,” she told the judge. “Something that should be a joy, enjoyed and cherished in life, will always be a struggle for me.”

Call IndyStar reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.

Call IndyStar reporter Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.

Call IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.

Share your experiences

IndyStar will continue to investigate this topic. If you have information you would like to share, please email investigations@indystar.com or call (317) 444-6262.