USA Gymnastics, the most influential gymnastics organization in America that determines who competes for Team USA, is under investigation for widespread allegations of abuse, and a failure to adequately protect or support victims with their internal policy.
In August, the Indy Star exposed the failures of USA Gymnastics when it came to protecting their gymnasts from abuse by coaches circulating in their system. On Thursday, the paper followed up on that first exposé with a second exhaustive report alleging that not only did USA Gymnastics fail to protect its gymnasts, it in fact acted dismissively toward alleged victims leading to more abuse. After nine months of going through court documents, the paper says that 368 gymnasts have come forward with an abuse allegation in the last twenty years, many of them at USA Gymnastics franchises.
The Indy Star also won a suit in Georgia demanding that depositions on 54 coaches sexual misconduct complaint files be unsealed, but USA Gymnastics is fighting the ruling. The paper’s reporters also say they’ve interviewed more than a hundred people who came forward after the first investigation’s publication. All together, they say, 115 adults from across the country, working in the world of gymnastics both professionally and recreationally, were accused of abuse:
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.
The victims of these men were teenagers or preteens, the youngest of which was six, and almost all of them were girls.
The paper says its unsure of how many of the coaches or victims were actually members of USA Gymnastics, as the organization has refused to release such information. But they report USA Gymnastic coaches were frequently allowed to leave one gym under suspicious allegations and then rejoin another somewhere else without being flagged. Background checks only caught those convicted on a criminal level, but many complaints disappeared into the ether allowing the accused to escape detection.
One example cited by the Indy Star is coach Doug Boger, who was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 2009 and sent to an international competition, all while under investigation for sexual abuse. USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny supposedly attempted to keep the allegations against Boger quiet for as long as possible, and was dismissive of complaints. A former gymnast named Charmaine Carnes tells the paper she filed a letter of complaint with the organization, along with several other women who said they’d been abused by Boger in the early 1980s, an accusation for which he was acquitted:
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.”
Another coach who allegedly slipped through the cracks due to USAG’s policies was Jeffrey Bettman, who moved from facilities in Oregon to California, installing secret cameras in their changing rooms. Bettman reportedly made 469 videos of 49 gymnasts who ranged in age from 8-16. Bettman started working at a gym in Medford in 2004, owned by a woman named Jill Hill. Hill fired Bettman in 2008 after observing his predatory behavior around girls, such as kissing them while holding him in his lap, their legs wrapped around his waist. Shortly after, a mother approached her saying Bettman had molested her daughter, but authorities were unable to pursue it due to lack of evidence:
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.”
Bettman wasn’t captured until 2012, in a federal sting when he shared child pornography online. He is currently serving 25 years in a federal prison. One woman who was abused by Bettman wrote to a judge that he had the same influence on her at the time as a family member, saying, “Jeff was closer to me than any uncle I have, a runner up for ‘dad’ or ‘grandpa’ if this makes sense,” continuing, “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.”
She explained that the abuse took a toll on her health, driving her to an eating disorder, and added, “I will never like being touched or physically embraced by others. Something that should be a joy, enjoyed and cherished in life, will always be a struggle for me.”
According to the Indy Star, the growth in USA Gymnastics policy has been slow and incomplete, focusing on advice to its members on how to deal with sexual abuse rather than practical ways to prevent it. In 1997, they created a list for coaches who were “permanently ineligible for membership” which confusingly meant that they could not participate in competitions, but could still work in member gyms. Ten years later, they began to require background checks for coaches, and in 2009 established their welfare policy for creating a safe environment for members. It wasn’t until 2011 that they stopped coaches banned from competitions from working in their gyms.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO of advocacy group Champion Women and former Olympic swimmer told the Indy Star, “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”
She believes that USA Gymnastics should make safety measures a condition of membership with the organization, such as prohibiting gift-giving, private massages, and other behaviors associated with pedophiles grooming potential victims, and mandate in-person training for parents and coaches to help them identify inappropriate behavior. Hogshead-Maker says that since USA Gymnastics is both a private and powerful organization they can pretty much set any parameters they want to, adding, “They can say you have to have a purple lollipop every day if you want to be a member of our organization,” and retract membership if you don’t.
You can and should read the full report here.