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Will Sexual Abuse Allegations Sink USA Swimming?

February 22, 2018

On the heels of the gut-wrenching headlines involving the sexual abuse of hundreds of young female gymnasts by Larry Nassar during his tenure as the physician for the USA Gymnastics team, another scandal involving sexual abuse within USA Swimming is coming to light.

Last week, the Orange County Register published a stunning expose claiming that hundreds of USA swimmers had been sexually abused for decades and the people in charge knew and ignored it. Bolstered by countless depositions and other court documents, a culture of sexual abuse by coaches and other swimming officials seems to continue to exist within USA Swimming primarily due to the complacency and inaction of the organization or the people leading it.

A Culture of Sexual Abuse

The most disturbing findings include multiple instances of coaches and others who were not placed on the USA Swimming Banned for Life List, even months or years after being criminally convicted of sexual crimes against minors. Since 2010, USA Swimming has composed a list of more than thirty coaches and officials considered to be “flagged” after being arrested or formally accused of sex crimes (including rape and possession of child pornography), yet not officially disciplined by the organization. As a result, there are accounts of individuals on the “flagged” list who continued to appear at swim meets and competitions with official credentials issued by USA Swimming.

The culture of sexual abuse appears to be widespread within the USA Swimming Organization. Since July 1997, no less than 252 swim coaches and other officials have been formally accused and disciplined by either law enforcement or USA Swimming for sexual acts against children under the age of eighteen. Records indicate at least 590 victims of these abuse cases, with some of the victims as young as pre-school-age.

Corruption Contributed to Failure to Act at the Highest Levels

Much of the investigation centered on the perceived inaction of Chuck Wielgus, who served as the executive director for USA Swimming from 1997 until his death following a lengthy battle with cancer. Although USA Swimming saw unprecedented Olympic success under his leadership, evidence shows that Wielgus knowingly suppressed and ignored credible accusations against coaches and other officials supposedly under his supervision.

Although Wielgus initially denied culpability in covering up the plethora of sex scandals, he later acknowledged that he was aware of far more than his failure to act might suggest. In a 2010 deposition taken under oath, when asked whether protecting the safety of young swimmers, particularly against sexual abuse, was the top goal of USA Swimming, Wielgus responded, “No, I would not… I would say that has never been our number one goal.”

Critics allege the organization has been willing to ignore, or even tolerate a culture of sexual abuse of its swimmers because of the heightened popularity of the sport, which generated significant revenues from corporate sponsors. Many believe if the accusations had become public and subjected USA Swimming to scrutiny, regardless of how appropriate it would have been, those corporate sponsors may have withdrawn their financial support.

Other damaging evidence shows that USA Swimming officials knew there was a serious problem with sexual abuse of their athletes. Records indicate the organization paid $77,627 to lobbyists to lobby against legislation in the California Legislature designed to make it easier for sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers and the organizations they worked for in civil court. Not only has USA Swimming failed to explain these lobbying efforts, but they also have not even attempted to do so. For the victims and their families, the silence can only be seen as a damning indictment of complicit behavior.

What Happens Next?

B. Robert Allard, an attorney representing several former swimmers claiming abuse by coaches and other officials, is calling for a total house cleaning at the highest levels of USA Swimming. “At this time I am convinced that the only way to effectively eradicate childhood sexual abuse in swimming is to, as we are seeing now with USA Gymnastics, completely ‘clean house.” Allard continued, “If this type of remedial action is justified in USA Gymnastics due to the abuse committed by one pedophile (Nassar), certainly it would be appropriate for USA Swimming where we have well over 100.” Allard is calling for the removal of all members of the USA Swimming Executive Leadership as well as the entire Board of Directors.

Congress has also conducted investigations into the allegations of sexual abuse by USA Swimming officials. The result of this investigation, Rep. George Miller (D-California) wrote in a letter to James Comey, then the director of the FBI, that the conclusions required further investigatory action. “As a result of my staff’s investigation, it has become clear that child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct have plagued USA Swimming since its inception in 1980,” wrote Miller.

With the scandal of USA Gymnastics coming to a head in the midst of a national conversation about inappropriate sexual conduct, it seems highly likely that more swimmers will step forward to confront their accusers and demand justice. It is impossible to speculate whether USA Swimming will be able to survive the onslaught of credible accusations, but there is no denying that the organization now finds itself in some very deep, dark, and dangerous waters.

Contact the Cifarelli Law Firm

At the Cifarelli Law Firm, LLP, our attorneys have been aggressively pursuing claims for victims of sexual abuse, harassment and other forms of misconduct for more than 25 years. Our attorneys devote their compassion and energy to developing innovative strategies designed to achieve maximum compensation for the physical and emotional trauma suffered by victims. We are committed to giving a voice to the victims. Contact us today by calling (949) 502-8600 or use the form on our website to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

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