An Indianapolis Star investigation found that at least 386 young gymnasts claimed they’ve been sexually assaulted by coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics over the past 20 years and that many of the suspected adults were allowed to move from gym to gym, including facilities that were certified by USA Gymnastics. That number is merely what the Star found; it likely is higher.
Thursday’s report by Tim Evans, Mark Alesia and Marisa Kwiatkowski was the result of a nine-month investigation and comes on the heels of a Star report in August that found USA Gymnastics officials failed to alert authorities when its coaches were accused of sexual abuse and often dismissed allegations of sexual abuse as hearsay unless they came from a victim or a parent.
USA Gymnastics, a powerful entity that decides who should represent the country in the much-watched Olympics gymnastics competition every four years, told the Star it has created a number of new initiatives for combating the problem, mandating background checks on coaches, for instance.
“Nothing is more important to USA Gymnastics, the Board of Directors and chief executive Steve Penny than protecting athletes, which requires sustained vigilance by everyone — coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials,” the organization said in a statement. “We are saddened when any athlete has been harmed in the course of his or her gymnastics career.”
The Star report found that the problem of sexual abuse at U.S. gymnastics facilities is exacerbated by a number of issues, one being USA Gymnastics’ emphasis on educating members about sexual abuse instead of setting up and enforcing strict rules that would combat it. Gym owners also fear the bad publicity that comes when one of their coaches is accused of sexual abuse, choosing to quietly terminate the coaches instead of alerting authorities. USA Gymnastics does not track or flag these fired coaches as they move around the country, and they often pop up at other gyms.
And, perhaps worst of all, the report found that gymnasts who accused their coaches of sexual abuse felt pressured not to pursue their charges by Penny, the USA Gymnastics CEO who has focused his attention on attracting commercial sponsorships and pursuing Olympic medals.
“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,” the Star reporters write. “Some said they never received a reply.”
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In one instance, a number of female gymnasts filed a sexual abuse complaint with USA Gymnastics against a coach named Doug Boger after they learned he still was coaching more than 20 years after he was charged with sexually abusing a gymnast in the early 1980s (he was acquitted in that case). The women all said that they, too, had been abused by Boger. But one of the women, Charmaine Carnes, called USA Gymnastics’ response to their complaint “demeaning” and said Penny “seemed like he thought the women were exaggerating.”
While the investigation was ongoing in 2009, USA Gymnastics named Boger one of its national coaches of the year and sent him with the U.S. team to the 2009 world championships in Russia. In 2011, USA Gymnastics banned Boger from participating in its competitions.