(USA TODAY) -- USA Gymnastics needs a "complete cultural change" after not doing enough to educate its staff, members and athletes about protecting children from sexual abuse and failing to ensure that safeguards were being followed, according to a critical review by a former federal prosecutor.
The safety and well-being of the governing body's athletes, not world and Olympic medals, must be the focus, Deborah Daniels said in her 100-page report, which was released to the public Tuesday. She also said membership in USA Gymnastics should be "revoked if policies are not followed."
The USA Gymnastics board was unanimous in accepting the 70 recommendations Daniels made, chairman Paul Parilla said Monday night.
“What we’ve recommended will take time and strategic planning and execution to implement,” Daniels said on a call late Monday with USA TODAY Sports and selected other news outlets. “But If USA Gymnastics does as they have said they will today, adopt these recommendations and implement them effectively, it’s poised, I would think, to be in the forefront of the U.S. Olympic movement in the protection of athletes from abuse.”
USA Gymnastics hired the former federal prosecutor last fall to review its practices and policies following criticism of its handling of sex abuse complaints, including a case involving the longtime team physician that has resulted in federal charges.
The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, has reported more than 360 cases in which gymnasts have accused coaches of sexual transgressions over 20 years. According to the Lansing State Journal, which is also part of the USA TODAY Network, at least 95 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, who was the national team physician from 1996 to 2015.
Nassar was ordered last week to stand trial in Ingham County (Mich.) on 12 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He faces 13 other criminal charges in state and federal courts. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Daniels did not make judgments on how USA Gymnastics handled specific cases or who was responsible for the failings. In the Nassar case, USA Gymnastics waited five weeks after receiving a complaint before alerting the FBI in July 2015.
“I did not consider that part of my portfolio here,” Daniels said of the Nassar case, though a reference to the case in the report’s footnotes said five weeks was “not a permissible delay.”
“My charge was to look at policies in place, the practices in place and identify ways in which they could be improved. I did not go into what any person may or may not have done in the past.”
USA Gymnastics has been “auditing” its files in light of Daniels’ report, Parilla said the federation won’t take retroactive action. The scandal has already led to the ouster of former president and CEO Steve Penny, who resigned in March after pressure by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“We are focusing solely on the future and how we can better protect athletes,” Parilla said.
Protecting athletes second to winning
As part of her investigation, which went from November to May, Daniels interviewed more than 160 people, including USA Gymnastics leadership and staff, club owners, current and former athletes, national team coaches and law enforcement.
She visited 25 gyms, went to five meets and attended a training camp at Bela and Martha Karolyi's ranch, where the women's national team has had monthly training camps since 2000.
The overriding theme was that, despite being an early leader in child protection, USA Gymnastics had failed to keep up with the current best practices. While it encouraged members and clubs to adopt policies that would help prevent abuse, including immediate reporting requirements, there was no obligation to do so – and no penalties if they didn’t.
“Most of the emphasis appears to be on educating the field and encouraging them to be vigilant, while taking the position that USA Gymnastics has no authority to require clubs to take specific action – including the reporting of suspected child abuse,” Daniels wrote. “The overall impression received externally is that the athlete protection function is, at best, secondary to the primary focus: winning medals.”
Even internally, the messages were mixed. The CEO was one of just two people authorized to receive reports of alleged abuse. The board spent very little time on safe sport issues and “does not act independently to hold management accountable for protecting children.”
Also of concern was that, until 2013, a written complaint from the “aggrieved party” or parent was required to report abuse unless there was a criminal conviction. That belief persisted after the criteria was changed in 2013 and “was not actively discouraged by USA Gymnastics.”
“This process alone, and the perception that a written, signed complaint from the victim is required, is sufficient to suppress many reports,” Daniels wrote.
To address the shortcomings will require the entire organization, from the head of the board to the smallest club owner, to change its mindset, Daniels said. Among her recommendations:
- Require immediate reporting of suspected abuse.
- Create a clear protocol for response to abuse complaints.
- Permit third-party reporting.
- Remove the president from a “controlling role” in handling complaints.
- Strengthen the Safe Sport Policy and require it to be adopted in full by member clubs.
- Develop a disciplinary process for clubs found to be in violation of the Safe Sport Policy.
- Consider requiring certification for coaches before they’re hired by member clubs.
. Create and require annual training in abuse policies, procedures and reporting mechanisms.
- Educate parents and athletes on abuse prevention on an annual basis.
- Hire a Safe Sport director.
Many of the recommendations have already been addressed by the creation of the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, an independent agency created by the U.S. Olympic Committee to handle sexual misconduct cases in the Olympic movement. Pending federal legislation, spurred in part by the abuse crisis at USA Gymnastics, would require anyone working under the jurisdiction of a national governing body to report suspected abuse or face a fine and possible imprisonment.
The House has already passed a version of the legislation. It is pending in the Senate.
Membership is a privilege
More tricky will be enforcing compliance among members and their clubs. USA Gymnastics has been reluctant to assume any kind of oversight over the independent businesses in the past, but Daniels said that has to change in order to protect young athletes.
“When I first got involved in this, I could tell USA Gymnastics had never felt that it really had the ability to exert influence over the clubs,” Daniels said. “I said I think you do because you can use membership to enforce the policies that you put in place. That is a privilege. And if it’s treated as a privilege, it can be revoked if policies are not followed.”
Having a Safe Sport director should help. USA Gymnastics posted the job in March, and Parilla said Monday that the federation is in the final stages of the hiring process.
“As soon as we have the director of Safe Sport, (the) first task is to present a strategic plan to accomplish all of the things that Deborah has recommended,” Parilla said. “So that we can ensure that all the way down to the club level, meaningful changes are being made at all levels to promote a safe environment for our athletes.”
USA Gymnastics still faces multiple lawsuits, most of stem from Nassar’s alleged abuse. Daniels said she had no idea what impact her report would have on the legal proceedings, nor was that her concern.
“This was a forward-looking report and not a rear-view report,” Daniels said. “My intention, and I believe that of the board, is to prevent further abuse to the fullest extent possible.”
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