USA Gymnastics will take a much stronger role in oversight of thousands of private gymnastics clubs across the country to ensure prevention of sex abuse — making reporting of suspected abuse mandatory, barring one-on-one time between a non-parent adult and a child and conducting routine audits of individual club policies — in response to a report released Tuesday.
The report, commissioned late last year by USA Gymnastics as it endured heavy criticism for its handling of several abuse allegations — most notably those involving former Team USA physician Larry Nassar — was produced by Deborah Daniels, a former U.S. Attorney with a background investigating sex crimes against children. Daniels also consulted Presidium, a Texas company that creates abuse prevention policies for youth-serving organizations.
Headquartered in Indianapolis, USA Gymnastics selects Team USA for international gymnastics competitions including the Olympics, and also oversees a network of more than 3,500 local clubs that pay an annual $160 fee for affiliation with the Olympic sports organization. The report recommends USA Gymnastics take much stronger oversight of these local clubs by making abuse prevention policies mandatory and revoking membership for clubs or coaches found to have broken rules or ignored policies.
In a meeting Monday, USA Gymnastics board of directors unanimously accepted the report and its recommendations. In a conference call with reporters Monday evening, Daniels said she did not examine how USA Gymnastics handled allegations against Nassar, who faces criminal charges of sexually assaulting six children in Michigan, and whom more than 100 women, including some former Team USA members, have alleged in lawsuits sexually assaulted them. Nassar has denied the claims and maintains his innocence.
“We are focusing solely on the future,” said Paul Parilla, USA Gymnastics board chairman, in response to questions about Nassar. USA Gymnastics, which has been sued by dozens of women who allege Nassar assaulted them, has said it first became aware of allegations against Nassar in June 2015, and investigated on its own for five weeks before reporting him to the FBI. While Daniels declined to comment about Nassar, she emphasized her report recommends mandatory reporting of suspected abuse immediately.
“Not even hours,” Daniels said. “Any time that the information you receive, if true, could constitute child abuse, that’s reportable. You don’t go investigate and try to find out if it’s true.”
Reports should be made to law enforcement, Daniels said, and to the new U.S. Center for SafeSport, a Denver-based nonprofit tasked with disciplinary investigations of abuse in Olympic sports organizations. This is a potentially far-reaching change, as laws in many states do not make private coaches or sport club owners mandatory reporters of abuse. USA Gymnastics had previously recommended clubs follow applicable state laws on reporting of abuse.
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In her review, Daniels found that while USA Gymnastics oversees a network of clubs that works with hundreds of thousands of children, the Olympic organization’s employees in Indianapolis have had little, if any, formal training in child abuse prevention. In depositions in lawsuits, USA Gymnastics’ last two chief executives, Bob Colarossi and Steve Penny, acknowledged they never underwent any formal training even though they were personally in charge of how the organization handled abuse allegations against coaches at member clubs.
Penny, whom USA Gymnastics board members defended for months, resigned in March after the U.S. Olympic Committee’s board recommended his removal.
Daniels’s recommendations include two changes to close gaps in USA Gymnastics’ relationship with member clubs that, in the past, may have allowed abuse to occur. All adults working with children at member clubs will have to become USA Gymnastics members, and undergo criminal background checks and abuse education training. In the past, some volunteers and club coaches who didn’t work with children at sanctioned USA Gymnastics events were not required to become members.
USA Gymnastics also will explore developing a system that tracks adults fired from member clubs under suspicions of abuse that don’t result in criminal charges, so they can’t seek employment at other member clubs.
Daniels’s review highlighted a problem linking USA Gymnastics’ sex abuse crisis with those previously afflicting other Olympic national governing bodies, most prominently USA Swimming: The Olympic organization allowed clubs across the country to purchase affiliation, but executives felt they couldn’t require basic abuse prevention policies, such as background checks for all adults working with children, at these clubs.
“USA Gymnastics has never felt that it really had the ability to exert influence over the clubs,” Daniel said. “I said, ‘Well, I think you do, because you could use membership to enforce policies. That [membership] is a privilege.’”