Society

Sexual Assault Scandal Rocks USA Gymnastics

| by Nik Bonopartis

At the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janiero, the U.S. women's gymnastics team once again covered itself in glory.

Gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman became household names as they brought home gold medals as individuals and as a team.

But for years, there's been a dark side to gymnastics, with 368 gymnasts reporting sexual abuse by adults, mostly coaches.

A new investigation by the Indianapolis Star details 20 years of sexual abuse complaints, and found evidence that USA Gymnastics -- the national governing body for gymnastics -- repeatedly ignored reports of coaches, gym owners and other adults sexually assaulting the children in their care.

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Some of the allegations echo the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church more than a decade ago -- including accusations that gym owners and local gymnastics organizations would quietly fire offenders instead of reporting the incidents to police out of fear that their own reputations would be ruined.

Those offenders, like 45-year-old Raymond Adams of Deerfield Beach, Florida, would simply move on to other gyms and continue abusing young gymnasts, the newspaper reported. Adams was fired or forced to resign from six gyms in four states before he was arrested. The former coach pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in 2014, according to the Sun-Sentinel of Broward County.

Much of the blame rests with USA Gymnastics, the investigation found -- the national governing body does not have a system for tracking sexual abuse allegations or convictions, and some former gymnasts have accused USA Gymnastics of pressuring them not to move ahead with criminal complaints "to protect the sport's image and win championships."

That was the case with Doug Boger, who was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 2009 and coached gymnasts in international competition despite an ongoing police investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. Boger called the accusations "fiction," according to KCNC.

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Boger was eventually placed on the "permanently ineligible" list by USA Gymnastics in 2011 after 12 former gymnasts accused him of sexually molesting them. The investigation into then-62-year-old Boger led to the discovery that a convicted sex offender owned the gym were Boger was working, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Boger, who has denied the allegations, was accused of hitting, choking, slapping, kicking, burning and sexually assaulting underage gymnasts he coached, the Orange County Register reported. He was acquitted in an earlier criminal trial, when two young gymnasts accused him of child abuse in 1982, but national gymnastics authorities took the later allegations seriously enough to eventually ban him from affiliated gyms.

"I was 8 or 9, and I remember he had this yellow Mustang and it was an honor if you got to ride with him," former gymnast Charmaine Carnes told the Register in a 2013 story. "And we would be in the car and it started off with him tickling me, and then I realized he was tickling me in my genitalia and I remember just staring at the gearshift in the car."

Former gymnasts told the Indianapolis Star that they believe USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny tried to keep allegations of sexual abuse secret, and they said Penny did the same with allegations against Boger, who successfully coached the national team for years.

Under Penny, the group has used confidentiality agreements in settlements with gymnasts who accused coaches and other adults of abuse, preventing the victims from speaking out about their experiences. USA Gymnastics has also moved to block newspapers from obtaining records about how the organization deals with sex abuse allegations, the Star reported.

The women speaking out now say they do not wish to pile on more charges, but their aim is instead to prevent any other girls from being molested by Boger, CNN reported.

Following an earlier Star story in August, USA Gymnastics hired former prosecutor Deborah J. Daniels to review and advise the organization on how to deal with sexual abuse accusations

“USA Gymnastics is proud of the work it has done to address and guard against child sexual abuse,” the organization wrote in a statement given to the newspaper.

But USA Gymnastics agreed to only one interview with the Star, granted by a lawyer and public relations director for the organization. Aside from that, the newspaper reported, USA Gymnastics would only accept written questions. Some of those questions went unanswered, while others were incomplete.

The Indianapolis Star won a court case in August to unseal files on 54 coaches who were accused of sexual abuse. Judge Ronald K. Thompson ordered USA Gymnastics to release the files to the newspaper, but the organization has not done so and has been using legal tactics to delay the release of the files, according to an Aug. 29 story.

People fighting on behalf of abused gymnasts say USA Gymnastics is placing its reputation above the safety of the young gymnasts who want to become the next Biles or Raisman. Among them is Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic gold medalist swimmer who runs Champion for Women, an advocacy group.

"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," Hogshead-Makar said. "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."

The investigation detailed sexual abuse allegations and convictions across the entire country, with new examples popping up regularly. In early December, an Illinois-based USA Gymnastics coach was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. In November, a 28-year-old USA Gymnastics member was arrested and charged with child molestation for allegedly pulling back the leotards of two gymnasts and touching their vaginas, the Star reported.

In other cases, police investigators have said USA Gymnastics did not cooperate with their investigations. Jennifer Baldwin, a detective at the Redmond, Washington, Police Department, wrote in a case file that she called the organization three times while investigating a gym owner and coach, and those calls went unanswered.

In the meantime, many victims are left with emotional scars not only from the sexual abuse they suffered by coaches and gym owners, but also by authorities in the gymnastics community who ignored them or accused them of lying.

Jeffrey Bettman, a former coach, pleaded guilty earlier in 2016 to hiding cameras in the changing rooms of gyms in several states, and keeping child pornography. Despite years of allegations, Bettman wasn't charged until he was caught up in an online child pornography sting, according to the Star.

One victim said Bettman, now serving 25 years in federal prison, was a fatherly or grandfatherly figure to her -- until he began abusing her.

“I will never like being touched or physically embraced by others,” she told a judge. “Something that should be a joy, enjoyed and cherished in life, will always be a struggle for me.”

Sources: Indianapolis Star (2) (3), Colorado Springs Gazette, KCNC, Orange County Register, CNN / Photo credit: Agencia Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

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