Sexual Abuse And Molestation Scandal Rocks USA Swimming

Illustration for article titled Sexual Abuse And Molestation Scandal Rocks USA Swimming

A recent spate of sex abuse cases among USA Swimming coaches is drawing comparisons to Catholic Church sex scandals. And both organizations are using the same excuse — they don't abuse kids any more than other people do.


The swimming scandal, as set forth by Megan Chuchmach and Avni Patel of ABC, is horrific both in its scope and in its details. Thirty-six coaches have been banned from the USA Swimming organization, which controls amateur competitive swimming in the US and selects the Olympic team, for various forms of sexual misconduct. One coach, who was sentenced last year, used a hidden camera to tape high school girls as they showered. Another allegedly impregnated a 14-year-old. Most disturbing of all, some coaches were able to evade detection for years, moving from one gig to another with no punishment by law enforcement or USA Swimming. One coach molested girls for thirty years, sometimes raising suspicion among parents and police, but was still given a clean background screening by the organization in 2008.

But USA Swimming's executive director Chuck Wielgus isn't very apologetic. He says, "We want to have the gold standard and I think we do an awesome job. I don't think we're perfect." This is exemplary of the gold standard? Really? Then he goes on to pass the buck to local swim clubs for checking out coaches. And of sexual abuse in general, he says:

It's not nearly as serious in USA Swimming as it might be in the rest of society. I don't want to be the one to sit here and say 36 is not too many, one is too many, but this is not just a problem that's isolated to one sport.

The "but other people are molesting too" argument has been used in reference to Catholic Church sex scandals as well. Newsweek's Pat Wingert quotes Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute, who says, "Plenty of other congregations have these problems, for instance, if they have a youth ministry." According to Wingert, this is actually true — there's no evidence that there's more abuse in the Catholic Church than in other denominations, or even that priests abuse more often than other men. And it is worth remembering this before we make generalizations about Catholics — or swim coaches. Wingert writes,

Most child abusers have one thing in common, and it's not piety-it's preexisting relationships with their victims. That includes priests and ministers and rabbis, of course, but also family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, youth-group volunteers, and doctors.

Yeah, well, this doesn't mean the organizations that deal with kids should get a free pass when their members commit abuse. It means they need to be extra-vigilant. Wielgus can claim all he wants that swimming is better than other sports with regard to child molestation, but his wisest statement is this one: "one is too many." And rather than throwing up their hands and lamenting how widespread child sexual abuse is, all those who work with kids, and who supervise others who work with kids, need to realize that they bear the responsibility for stopping it.

ABC News Investigation: USA Swimming Coaches Molested, Secretly Taped Dozens Of Teen Swimmers [ABC]
Mean Men [Newsweek]



I have intimate knowledge of USA Swimming's policy regarding policing it's 1000s of coaches and protecting its 100,000s of kids. They do a MUCH better job than any other Olympic sport - and I've worked with many. In fact, they DO something. They background check every coach. The checks are only as good as someone's criminal history.

Swimming is also a HUGE sport. Every person who teaches swimming to any child who enters a race in the US is required to be a USA Swimming coach. Background checks have been in place for years and coaches are disciplined and removed in any number of circumstances that violate the code of conduct. USA Swimming has a small staff compared to its participants and has taken active steps to protect its athletes. In a sport that has young children in swimsuits, there may be more coaches who are not good people than in other environments, but this story is, in my opinion and experience, unnecessarily inflammatory and judgmental to USA Swimming. Mr. Weilgus is correct in his statement and discounting him out of hand is unhelpful. He does not need to be apologetic that bad things have happened. He didn't cause them and he is taking every possible step to be sure that in his organization, it doesn't happen again.

As a side note, my hometown was overseen by Cardinal Bernard Law and the initial Catholic Church sex scandal was tied to where I grew up and parents and uncles and cousins of friends. I watched what happened there. The differences couldn't be more stark.