Courtney Kiehl

A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases

Courtney Kiehl
A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases

Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.

An IndyStar investigation uncovered multiple examples of children suffering the consequences, including a Georgia case in which a coach preyed on young female athletes for seven years after USA Gymnastics dismissed the first of four warnings about him.

In a 2013 lawsuit filed by one of that coach’s victims, two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted under oath that the organization routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.

Legal experts and child advocates expressed alarm about that approach, saying the best practice is to report every allegation to authorities. Laws in every state require people to report suspected child abuse.

“USAG failed at this,” said Lisa Ganser, whose daughter filed the Georgia lawsuit, which is still being argued. “USA Gymnastics had enough information, I think, to have done something about this. It didn't have to happen to my daughter, and it didn't have to happen to other little girls.”

USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, develops the U.S. Olympic team and promotes the industry at all levels. Its members include more than 121,000 athletes and 3,000 gyms. The organization touts itself as a “big time brand” with sponsors such as AT&T and Hershey’s. After the Rio Olympics, which start this week, its premier athletes will be showcased on a 36-city Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, a one-two punch of publicity that typically prompts a membership surge at gyms.

USA Gymnastics has failed to report to police many allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches. That allowed predatory coaches to continue working with children for years after the organization was warned.Robert Scheer/IndyStar

USA Gymnastics would not disclose the total number of sexual misconduct allegations it receives each year. But records show the organization compiled complaint dossiers on more than 50 coaches and filed them in a drawer in its executive office in Indianapolis. The contents of those files remain secret, hidden under seal in the case filed by Ganser’s daughter. IndyStar, as part of the USA TODAY Network, filed a motion seeking to make the files public. The judge in that case has not yet ruled.

But even without access to those files, IndyStar tracked down four cases in which USA Gymnastics was warned of suspected abuse by coaches but did not initiate a report to authorities.

Those coaches went on, according to police and court records, to abuse at least 14 underage gymnasts after the warnings:

 

  • USA Gymnastics received a detailed complaint in 2011 about Marvin Sharp, who was named 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year. It described inappropriate touching of minors and warned that he shouldn’t be around children. Four years later, USA Gymnastics reported Sharp to police — but only after it was confronted with another disturbing allegation about him. This one led to Sharp being 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. Shortly after he was charged in federal court in Indianapolis last year, he killed himself in jail.
  • USA Gymnastics had compiled a thick file of complaints about coach Mark Schiefelbein years before he was charged with molesting a Tennessee girl when she was 10 years old. The girl’s family contacted police in 2002. Schiefelbein penetrated her with his finger multiple times, according to police records. He also videotaped her exposed vagina for what he called “training purposes, so he would know where not to touch her.” The girl’s family was shocked to discover the history of complaints against Schiefelbein, which came to light only after prosecutors subpoenaed records from USA Gymnastics. A jury in Williamson County, Tennessee, convicted him in 2003 of seven counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. He is serving a 36-year prison sentence.
  • USA Gymnastics had a sexual misconduct complaint file on James Bell at least five years before his 2003 arrest for molesting three young gymnasts in Rhode Island. It’s unclear what allegations were contained in that file. But IndyStar found prior police reports on Bell in Oregon. In 1990, an underage gymnast told police that Bell had climbed on top of her and told her he wanted to take off her pants. In 1991, a 10-year-old gymnast said Bell stuck his hand inside her shirt and pinched her breast. Bell wasn't charged and continued coaching until his former employer reported him to police in Middletown, Rhode Island. He went on the run in 2004 and wasn’t rearrested until last year. Bell pleaded guilty in December in Newport County, Rhode Island, to three counts of child molestation and is serving eight years in prison.
  • USA Gymnastics received at least four complaints about coach William McCabe as early as 1998. One gym owner warned the organization in 1998 that McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” USA Gymnastics never reported the allegations to police and, according to federal authorities, he began molesting an underage girl in 1999. McCabe continued to coach children for nearly seven more years, until Lisa Ganser went to the FBI with concerns about emails to her then-11-year-old daughter. McCabe was charged with molesting gymnasts, secretly videotaping girls changing clothes and posting their naked pictures on the internet. He pleaded guilty in 2006 in Savannah, Georgia, to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He is serving a 30-year sentence.

 

USA Gymnastics, in response to questions from IndyStar, defended its handling of child abuse complaints. It said it follows reporting laws and is doing enough to protect children.

Steve Penny, the organization’s president, declined to be interviewed, citing privacy issues of those involved and the ongoing lawsuit in the McCabe case. But he released this statement: “USA Gymnastics has a long and proactive history of developing policy to protect its athletes and will remain diligent in evaluating new and best practices which should be implemented. We recognize our leadership role is important and remain committed to working with the entire gymnastics community and other important partners to promote a safe and fun environment for children.”

More from this project:

• Why coaches’ hugs make former gymnast Becca Seaborn cringe

• VIDEO: Survivors and families tell how coaches were protected

• VIDEO: Former gymnast: "USAG is not transparent"

• How IndyStar investigated USA Gymnastics

• How to protect your child from sexual predators

The organization describes its member coaches and gyms as the “gold standard … a distinction that parents look for and depend upon.”

Yet the internal policies uncovered by IndyStar leave some with a different impression.

Shelley Haymaker, an Indiana attorney who represents abuse victims in child welfare cases, said USA Gymnastics’ approach “sickens” her.

“USAG may not have been the hand that ultimately abused these innocent children,” Haymaker said, “but it was definitely the arm.”

Confidential sexual misconduct files

In the McCabe case, the organization acknowledged in court records that it seldom, if ever, forwarded allegations of child abuse to police or child protective services without being asked. When questioned under oath about its practices, Penny and his predecessor, Robert Colarossi, shed light on why. The reasons included concern about potential damage to a coach’s reputation if an allegation proved to be false.

Colarossi said he inherited an executive policy of dismissing complaints as “hearsay” unless they were signed by a victim or victim’s parent — a policy that experts said could deter people from reporting abuse. It’s not clear exactly when that policy was created or by whom.

“What we’re talking about,” Colarossi said, “is a policy that was a policy of the executive office.”

Michael Athans, an attorney representing USA Gymnastics, told IndyStar those policies go back to at least the 1990s and “really haven’t changed.”

Plaintiffs in the McCabe case contend that officials administered the executive policy inconsistently.

Sometimes, USA Gymnastics “investigated rumors, anonymous claims or hearsay allegations,” according to court records. Other times, it didn’t investigate complaints that appeared to meet its requirements.

Athans said he wished it were possible to further clarify the organization’s policies, but officials are limited because of the McCabe litigation.

‘I literally felt sick to my stomach’

McCabe was suspected of preying on young gymnasts as early as 1996, when he was fired from Gymnastic World in Cape Coral, Florida, by the gym’s owner, Dan Dickey. Two years later, Dickey learned that McCabe had started coaching at a gym in Tallahassee. That’s when Dickey sent a warning letter to USA Gymnastics.

Dickey’s letter, received by USA Gymnastics on Oct. 24, 1998 — and included in records in the Georgia lawsuit — described how he fired McCabe after a staff member had told him that McCabe bragged about having a 15-year-old girl in her underwear and said he thought he would be able to “f--- her very soon.”

Dickey said he also learned that McCabe had boasted about sleeping with gymnasts in other clubs where he had worked.

“To allow this scum bag to continue working within the gymnastic community would be a terrible insult to all of the gym owners and coaches who have worked so hard to build up the reputation of gymnastics,” Dickey wrote in his letter to USA Gymnastics.

USA Gymnastics sent Dickey a short letter four days later, saying it was “awaiting an official letter of complaint from a parent and athlete. I will add your letter to the file in the event we receive the letter and an investigation is commenced.”

By then, Jan Giunipero, then-owner of the Tallahassee gym, had sent USA Gymnastics a fax after McCabe resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment involving females at the gym. The fax, dated Oct. 20, 1998, included six pages of allegations against McCabe with names and contact information for other gyms that had fired him or that he had left under questionable circumstances.

Yet, months later, McCabe was still coaching.

“If there is any other incident similar in nature, who is to blame? The gym who unknowingly hires someone like Mr. McCabe or USA Gymnastics who knew about him and did nothing?”

JAN GIUNIPERO, THEN-OWNER OF A TALLAHASSEE GYM, IN A LETTER TO USA GYMNASTICS.

So Giunipero wrote two more letters urging USA Gymnastics to take action.

“I literally felt sick to my stomach to think he would even be touching these girls,” she wrote. “Is this the kind of organization you wish to run? If there is any other incident similar in nature, who is to blame? The gym who unknowingly hires someone like Mr. McCabe or USA Gymnastics who knew about him and did nothing?”

Around that same time, McCabe began sexually abusing an underage girl, according to prosecutors in his eventual criminal case. The abuse continued for “several years.”

USA Gymnastics renewed McCabe’s membership in December 1999.

Filed away

Colarossi, who was USA Gymnastics president from 1998 to 2005, acknowledged in a deposition last year that the organization dismissed the allegations against McCabe as “hearsay” because they did not come from a victim or victim’s parent.

No one at the organization ever interviewed Dickey, Giunipero or two other coaches whom Giunipero recommended USA Gymnastics contact about McCabe’s conduct, according to court records.

“Because they are unsubstantiated allegations,” Colarossi explained as he was being deposed by attorney W. Brian Cornwell of Lasky Cooper Law, who is representing Ganser’s daughter. “This one says he’s a dangerous coach. Over here it says an incident happened. We don’t know what the incident is.”

“But you made no further inquiry into what any of the incidents or allegations were?” Cornwell asked.

“We didn’t,” Colarossi said.

He said USA Gymnastics instead placed the complaints in a file.

In fact, the organization compiled confidential sexual misconduct complaint files about 54 coaches over a 10-year period from 1996 to 2006, court records show. It’s unclear which, if any, of the complaints in those files were reported to authorities. It’s also unclear how many files have been added since 2006.

Court testimony also revealed why USA Gymnastics officials were reluctant to consider complaints from one coach about another coach.

“In the sport of gymnastics, it’s very competitive to gain and retain students and/or athletes, and people might have all kinds of reasons for saying things,” Colarossi said in the 2015 deposition.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny during the women's gymnastics team trials in July 2016 in San Jose, California.
(Photo: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

Penny, the USA Gymnastics president since 2005,testified in a 2014 deposition that the possibility of a witch hunt is “very real” and officials have to move carefully on complaints “because the coach is as much a member as the athlete.”

Although USA Gymnastics didn’t pass all complaints to police, officials did sometimes launch their own investigation. But that, too, is a bad practice, child welfare experts note, because internal investigations can be tainted by a conflict of interest and can impede a criminal probe. Depositions and other court records reviewed by IndyStar reveal the organization was inconsistent in the criteria it used to decide whether to investigate.

Robert Agnew, a retired FBI agent whom USA Gymnastics kept on retainer to investigate complaints, said in a deposition last year that hesometimes disagreed with how the organization handled complaints, including its failure to look into allegations against McCabe. He said he deferred to top USA Gymnastics officials on whether to report allegations to police or child welfare officials — even if he “probably felt” a report should be made.

“I would not independently refer a case to law enforcement,” Agnew said.

Penny said USA Gymnastics would follow child abuse reporting guidelines for any state laws that exist. But he suggested the organization was not obligated to report allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches to authorities.

“To the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are — if you are a third-party to some allegation,” Penny said in a deposition taken last year. “You know, that lies with the person who has firsthand knowledge.”

‘Err on the side of the child’

Legal experts told IndyStar the law doesn’t require firsthand information.

All it requires is a “reason to believe” abuse has occurred.

“When you look at a lot of chronic cases of child abuse, where you have multiple children abused over a period of time, a common thread is certainly that someone within the institution knew and failed to report. So if people are serious about putting an end to institutional abuse or at least reducing the amount of it, the best thing they can do is pick up the phone and make a report.”

KRISTINA KOROBOV, ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY

The Indiana law requires a “very broad interpretation of this definition,” said Haymaker, the attorney who represents abuse victims in child welfare cases. “In fact, one is encouraged to err on the side of precaution.”

After reviewing documents from the McCabe lawsuit at IndyStar’s request, Haymaker said she believes USA Gymnastics violated state law when it failed to report allegations of child abuse to law enforcement or child welfare agencies.

“There is no question that USAG is not interpreting the law of our state, but rather their own internal law and system,” she said.

All 50 states have laws that require people to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Who has that duty varies from state to state.

In Indiana, where USA Gymnastics is headquartered, the law specifically requires everyone — including coaches, gym owners and officials of sports organizations — to report child abuse.

“When an agency receives information, first they need to ask themselves: ‘Do I have reason to believe that a child is being abused or neglected based on this information that I’ve received?’” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristina Korobov, a longtime prosecutor of child abuse cases, who could not comment specifically on USA Gymnastics. “And if so, you make a report. And you make an immediate report. End of story.”

The need to report quickly, without conducting an internal investigation or weighing other factors, is so important the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a high school principal violated the law when he waited four hours to report the alleged rape of a student.

Child advocates say there also is a moral obligation to report suspected child abuse — a duty emphasized in the advice USA Gymnastics shared with its members.

Through a child abuse awareness campaign launched in 2012, USA Gymnastics encourages local gyms to immediately report abuse allegations to law enforcement.

“It is always best to err on the side of the child,” the organization said in a 2013 edition of Technique magazine.

Katherine Starr, founder of a national advocacy group called Safe4Athletes, who has followed USA Gymnastics’ practices for years, said that when it comes to its own handling of allegations, USA Gymnastics “errs on the side of the institution.”

‘A coach in good standing’

McCabe continued coaching gymnastics until 2006, more than seven years after USA Gymnastics received its first warning about him. By then, he was co-owner of Savannah Metro Gymnastics & Cheerleading in Rincon, Georgia, and he was preying on other young victims.

A newspaper story about the gym opening in 2002 promoted the fact that McCabe was a USA Gymnastics member and skill evaluator. It also said he had three gymnasts make the national team.

Lisa Ganser enrolled her daughter in McCabe’s new gym in 2002. More than a year later, Ganser received an anonymous packet that included the complaints that had been sent to USA Gymnastics, according to court records.

Ganser called USA Gymnastics. She said an official there confirmed McCabe’s membership and told her there were no complaints against him.

“It was supposed to be reassuring,” Ganser said, “that he was a coach in good standing.”

She also confronted McCabe, who denied the allegations and said the packet came from a disgruntled former business partner.

So Ganser thought her daughter was safe.

‘It’s like they don’t want people to report’

Some in the gymnastics community told IndyStar they question whether USA Gymnastics is too preoccupied with producing Olympic champions, winning sponsorships and growing the sport — or too conflicted about protecting its image — to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of children in gymnastics.

Molly Shawen-Kollmann, a member of the U.S. National team from 1991 to 1993 and now a coach in the Cincinnati area, said she thinks USA Gymnastics officials have good intentions but are overmatched by the substantial growth in the number of member clubs.

“Gymnastics is such a bubble. It’s its own universe,” Shawen-Kollmann said. “… The federation is thinking about the Olympics, then the World Championships. It’s go, go, go. That’s how they have to be.”

With that in mind, some experts recommend USA Gymnastics simply report all allegations to authorities. It’s a no-risk proposition in all states because of laws that provide immunity from civil or criminal liability to individuals who make a report in good faith.

Child advocates argue that law enforcement and child welfare experts are best qualified to investigate such allegations — not an organization that also might have to protect itself.

Courtney Kiehl is a survivor of sexual abuse by her former gymnastics coach. As a result of the abuse, Kiehl and another survivor co-founded the Abused Children Heard Everywhere Foundation (ACHE) to help other survivors of abuse share their stories. "I really needed something good to come out of this," she said.
(Photo: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

Courtney Kiehl, a survivor of sexual abuse by a gymnastics coach and co-founder of Abused Children Heard Everywhere Foundation, called USA Gymnastics’ approach “absurd.”

She laughed at the requirement that complaints be signed by a victim or victim’s parent.

“It sounds like someone came up with something who has no real idea of what the experience of a victim is,” Kiehl said.

Coming forward and speaking out about one of these crimes, she said, can be traumatic. Victims may be reluctant to make a formal report but could confide in a friend or trusted adult — the very people whose complaints, under USA Gymnastics’ practice, wouldn’t merit an investigation or report to law enforcement.

“It’s like they don’t want people to report,” Kiehl said. “That’s crazy to me, that you wouldn’t want to be proactive.”

‘He should’ve been stopped’

In January 2006, months after USA Gymnastics reassured her about McCabe, Ganser found disturbing emails on her 11-year-old daughter’s computer. They appeared to be from an Olympic gold medalist. The exchanges started with casual gymnastics talk but escalated to sexual requests. Ganser’s daughter also received pictures of naked female body parts.

Ganser contacted the FBI.

Investigators learned the emails had been sent by McCabe, who was pretending to be the Olympic star. They said he also lied about who he was while interacting online with at least four other minors he met through gymnastics.

The FBI discovered McCabe had secretly recorded sexually explicit video of young gymnasts as they changed clothes, and he shared the videos online. Prosecutors alsoaccused him of molesting girls as young as fifth or sixth grade.

McCabe, who declined an interview with IndyStar, is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison.

Ganser’s daughter filed her lawsuit against McCabe and USA Gymnastics in 2013 in the State Court of Effingham County in Springfield, Georgia.

In court filings seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, USA Gymnastics said the warnings it received in 1998 and 1999 did not provide “any foresight about McCabe’s criminal misconduct” and didn’t meet the “reason to believe” threshold of the law.

“Although USA Gymnastics had received correspondence from Giunipero and Dickey reporting third-hand hearsay allegations regarding McCabe and two cheerleaders, it had not received any complaint from either a member athlete or parent of a member athlete claiming that McCabe abused or might abuse a USA Gymnastics member athlete,” according to a filing in March.

INDYSTAR

Trail of Warnings - Bill McCabe's career and warning signs

USA Gymnastics also argued that it is not liable because the mandatory child abuse reporting laws in Florida and Indiana applied only to individuals, not to organizations.

Ross Robinson, father of the Tennessee girl abused by coach Mark Schiefelbein, said in an interview with IndyStar that USA Gymnastics’ tepid approach to his daughter’s predator was “kind of like Pontius Pilate. I wash my hands of it.”

Ganser said the effect on her daughter and other little girls will be “everlasting.”

After McCabe’s arrest, Ganser’s 11-year-old daughter lived in fear. She slept in her parents’ bedroom for about three weeks. Then she cleaned out her bedroom closet and slept curled up on the floor for two weeks with pillows, blankets and the doors closed.

Ganser said her daughter, now 22, still is afraid to trust. And she knows the naked pictures McCabe took of her are still out there and could resurface at any time.

INDIANAPOLIS STAR

Why coaches’ hugs make Becca Seaborn cringe

“I know there’s always going to be little girls and people who have bad things happen to them, but this did not have to go on,” Ganser said. “It did not have to happen. Bill McCabe could have been stopped close to 10 years before he got these girls. He should’ve been stopped before he ever got to our town.”

Kaylin Maddox Brietzke (seen with her mother, Natalie Maddox, left) is a survivor of sexual abuse by her former gymnastics coach, James Bell, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence in Rhode Island.
(Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

With Kaylin Maddox Brietzke, it was a different coach in a different state, but the trauma was much the same.

The Rhode Island woman said the abuse she suffered at coach James Bell’s hands “flipped my world upside down.”

Brietzke was 7 years old when her new coach started touching and kissing her and other gymnasts. It went on for two years. She was too young to understand. And confused by reassurances from adults.

“He had different ways of doing things,” she said, “and we were told that his ways of doing things got people to the Olympics.”

Brietzke, now 22, said she later questioned herself, feeling stupid for not realizing it was abuse. Even now, she breaks down in tears when describing the way she felt.

“What was wrong with me that I didn’t see that that was wrong?” she wondered.

Brietzke said she has struggled with authority, particularly with male coaches and male teachers.

“So anytime anyone told me to do anything, I was against it,” she said. “I didn’t even want to clean my room if someone told me to. I wanted it to be my decision. You know, I didn’t want to eat my dinner if I was told to. I wanted it to be my decision. And that’s how I was … from 9 years old to 12 years old. And then all through high school and all through the rest of my life. You know, even now. It’s something that I have to continue working on.”

And when it comes to USA Gymnastics, Brietzke’s response mirrors Ganser’s: Bell could have been stopped years before he reached her gym. If only USA Gymnastics had focused on things that really mattered.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re protecting,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that they’re part of your organization and you want to save face.”

Brietzke paused, collecting herself.

“How about saving me?”