Behind the shocking sexual abuse allegations facing USA Gymnastics

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JUDY WOODRUFF: On the eve of the opening Olympic ceremonies in Brazil, a new investigation into USA Gymnastics uncovers some disturbing details.

As athletes are gathering in Rio, a stunning report from The Indianapolis Star and USA Today Network dominated this day: It found top executives in charge of gymnastics’ national governing body for years routinely ignored allegations of sexual abuse by coaches of young athletes, in some cases going back to the 1990s.

The report said USA Gymnastics had files on more than 50 coaches around the country, claims that had long sat in drawers at its office in Indianapolis. That included a former coach, Mark Schiefelbein. The news report said gymnastics officials had a thick file of complaints about him for years before he was convicted of sexual battery and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Former gymnast Becca Seaborn says he molested her as a young girl. Her parents learned of the extensive file USA Olympics had only after he was convicted.

JILL ROBINSON, Parent of Sexual Abuse Survivor : Our daughter now is 26 years old. This happened when she was 10 and 11. And for it still to be where it’s at and for them not to have changed anything, it just makes me sick that this is still happening, that these children aren’t being protected. And it’s just not fair.

The Olympics is going to start. These kids are going to want to go jump in gyms and be just like these heroes they see on TV, and it just starts all over again. And it just makes me really sad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In another case, the report found gymnastics officials had sexual misconduct files on coach James Bell five years before he was arrested for molesting other gymnasts.

Kaylin Maddox Brietzke said she was 7 when Bell inappropriately touched her, and she is angry at USA Gymnastics.

KAYLIN MADDOX BRIETZKE, Sexual Abuse Survivor: Any corporation that puts their reputation above safety, honestly, is something that I don’t want to be a part of at all. And I was part of USA Gymnastics for a very long time. It doesn’t matter who you are protecting. It doesn’t matter that they are part of your organization and you want to save face. How about saving me?

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a statement, Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, said the organization is — quote — “committed to promoting a safe environment” and — quote — “believes it has a duty to report to law enforcement whatever circumstances warrant.”

But he also said the group seeks first-hand knowledge whenever allegations arise and noted — quote — “We feel The Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture.”

For a closer look at all this, we turn to Marisa Kwiatkowski. She’s investigative reporter for The Indy Star, which is part of the USA Today Network, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming. She’s a lawyer and the CEO of Champion Women, which provides legal advocacy for girls and women in sports.

For the record, we invited USA Gymnastics to appear, but no one was available.

And we want to thank both of you for joining us.

Marisa Kwiatkowski, to you first. Help our audience to understand the role that USA Gymnastics plays. What is it to the sport of gymnastics?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI, Indianapolis Star: USA Gymnastics is the sport’s national governing body, so they set the rules and policies that govern the sport of gymnastics in the United States.

They also are the ones who select the Olympic team, the team that will represent the United States in the Olympics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the report today suggested something like 50 coaches may have been involved over a period of how many years?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: We know that USA Gymnastics compiled sexual misconduct complaint files on at least 54 coaches between 1966 and 2006.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so we’re talking about something that allegedly went on for a long time.

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: Well, the issue of sexual misconduct has been a problem in all different kind of sports, all different disciplines over a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marisa Kwiatkowski, as we just heard, USA Gymnastics is saying, “We feel The Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture.”

What do you think they’re referring to?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: I’m not sure what they’re referring to.

I can tell you that we feel that we were extremely fair to the information that they provided. In fact, on our Web site, IndyStar.com, we do have all of the questions that we asked them, along with all of their responses, so the public can see for themselves specifically what we asked and what they responded.

We have also posted their statement that you’re referring to in its entirety on our Web site.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is their best explanation for why these files sat there and why people — parents weren’t notified, why this wasn’t more public, why something wasn’t done sooner?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: Well, we don’t know at this time what’s in those files because they are sealed by the judge in the criminal case.

And USA Gymnastics has declined to release them to us. They cited the privacy of those involved. But we do know that those involved allegations of sexual misconduct against coaches. We don’t know whether or not those were investigated by USA Gymnastics or whether they were reported to authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you have any sense of what happens next after — now that this report is public?

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: Well, we have a number of articles that we’re continuing to work on, on this topic that will be coming out through Indy Star and USA Today Network in the future.

But, specifically, there’s a lawsuit. The lawsuit is ongoing, so the judge will at some point rule both on our motion to intervene to get access to those documents and also to the plaintiff’s case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn now to Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

What was your reaction when you first saw this story?

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR, CEO, Champion Women: Well, I was aware of this rule.

I knew that United States Swimming also has a similar rule, which says that it will only review complaints that are filed by either victims or parents of victims. And that rule is not required by the SPORTS Act or by any sports law. And it’s just — it’s sort of a random rule, but it works to keep national governing bodies from having to go and do these investigations or go and file reports with the police and other authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there an awareness — staying with you Nancy Hogshead-Makar, was there an awareness that this might have been going on over time?

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Well, the issue of sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports is one that I have been working on for a number of years.

So, you, as an employee, are protected by Title VII. As a student, they are protected by Title IX that requires that schools investigate and sanction those abusers or sexual violence. We got the president of the United States involved.

But when it comes to club and Olympic sports, there is no civil rights protection for them. So these national governing bodies, what they will say in court that we don’t owe a legal duty to the kid who is harmed, that the club should handle it, that the parent should handle it, that other people, but not the national governing bodies, should handle it.

So they — so, consequently, you get the rules like the one they have which says that, you know, unless the kid makes the complaint, they’re not going to do anything. And we know that molesters are very good at getting molester — or getting kids to be quiet. That’s why when we find out about molesters, somebody like the Sandusky type, you just find dozens, if not hundreds of cases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is the recourse, then, for parents, for men or women who may have been involved in — may have been involved in a case of molestation years ago or currently? What can they do?

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Yes, there is not the same league protection.

There’s not — I mean, right. And so that’s consequently why it’s hard to hear about it, why we don’t hear about a lot of it. And so it’s usually people who are deeply in the sport that know best about just how bad it is and where the problems are, things like what The Indianapolis Star revealed in their investigation.

But if a parent thinks that they have a problem, they should definitely report to their national governing body, you know, because we know that both parents and victims, they will do an investigation, that they will report to the appropriate authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But one of the things that’s so disturbing is how young these children were. Seven years old?

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Absolutely. Yes. No, these are small children.

The easy part for governing bodies to do is the education piece. The much harder part is getting a coach out. You know, listen, police have a hard time dealing with sexual abuse and getting and convicting these people and making sure that they are in prison.

Any youth-serving organization needs to have very strong protections. What we want them to have is an independent duty to do these investigations and get the molesters out of the organization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know, for one thing, I’m sure everyone hopes that this kind of public reporting of this could begin to make some difference.

We’re going to leave it there.

Marisa Kwiatkowski, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, we thank you both.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Thank you very much.

MARISA KWIATKOWSKI: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in other Olympics news, this evening, the International Olympic Committee approved the entry of 271 Russian athletes for the Rio games. They had faced questions as to whether or not Russian athletes would be banned due to allegations of doping.

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