USA Gymnastics was urged to bring about a “complete culture change” this week, amid intense scrutiny over its failure to report allegations of sexual abuse by coaches against underage athletes in their care.
The national governing body has released a statement apologising to child abuse survivors, as an independent review into its conduct published 70 new recommendations that would help guarantee the safety of its gymnasts.
In an open letter signed by 21 board members and posted on its website, the organisation said: “Even one instance of child abuse is one too many. USA Gymnastics is very sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career, and we offer our deepest regrets to any athlete who suffered abuse or mistreatment while participating in the sport. By working together, we can move the sport forward to better prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur.”
The move follows an investigation published by the Indianapolis Star last year that documented at least four situations where officials were warned about suspected sexual abuse by coaches, but did not report it to authorities. At least 14 other athletes were abused as a result of inaction, with further allegations that implicated over 50 coaches, the paper said.
Its report prompted two gymnasts to file a series of civil lawsuits against USA Gymnastics and former team doctor Dr. Larry Nassar, claiming he sexually abused them during their time on the US national team.
The doctor is currently facing trial in Michigan for charges of sexually assaulting six young gymnasts, who said he molested them while they were seeking treatment for various injuries. More than 80 women in total have come forward with claims against the physician, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The review into misconduct was led by former federal child sexual abuse prosecutor, Deborah J. Daniels. She said USA Gymnastics “inadvertently suppressed” reporting of abuse because of a number of reasons. She noted that athletes sometimes aren’t aware of where the boundaries are, as they are taught to automatically obey trainers and follow their instructions.
“Young athletes (in their teens or younger) and their parents are highly unlikely to report ongoing abuse to the authority that has so much power over the athlete’s success in the sport,” she added.
In order to safeguard gymnasts, Daniels recommended a series of measures. These included an obligation for USA Gymnastics members to report all suspected sexual misconduct to the authorities. Also, she said, adults should not be left alone at any time with athletes, including in hotel rooms. She said coaches should not have “out of programme” contact with athletes via text, email or social media.
The board at USA Gymnastics voted unanimously to implement many of the measures suggested by Daniels this week.
“It is hard enough for people to come forward and make a complaint like this,” Stephen Crew, a Michigan lawyer representing some of the gymnasts in the case against Dr. Nassar, told the New York Times. “Every sign should indicate ‘we are taking this seriously.’”
Seek help and support with issues related to sexual abuse at thesurvivortrust.org