USA Gymnastics routinely ignored warnings of sexual abuse by coaches, report alleges

Athletes practice during a training session at the Athletes Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [David Ramos | Getty Images]
Athletes practice during a training session at the Athletes Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [David Ramos | Getty Images]
Published Aug. 4, 2016

A stunning, detailed investigation published Thursday by the Indianapolis Star found that USA Gymnastics, the sport's governing body in this country, did little to investigate numerous claims of sexual abuse levied against gymnastics coaches across the country, routinely dismissing the allegations as hearsay "unless they came directly from a victim or victim's parent" because of fears that the allegations would damage the reputations of the coaches in question.

This approach runs counter to best practices when dealing with reports of sexual abuse against minors and is possibly illegal, as every state in the country has a law requiring people to report suspected sexual abuse of a minor to authorities. But instead of investigating or reporting the allegations, USA Gymnastics routinely filed them away.

"USA Gymnastics would not disclose the total number of sexual misconduct allegations it receives each year. But records show the organization compiled complaint dossiers on more than 50 coaches and filed them in a drawer in its executive office in Indianapolis," the Star's Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans write, adding that their contents remain hidden under judicial order as a lawsuit filed by a woman whose daughter was abused by a USA Gymnastics coach winds its way through the courts.

The Star's reporters found four instances in which USA Gymnastics did not report coaches to the authorities after receiving warnings about suspected sexual abuse. "Those coaches went on, according to police and court records, to abuse at least 14 underage gymnasts after the warnings," the Star writes.

USA Gymnastics issued a statement after the story's publication on Thursday morning, alleging that "the Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture of our efforts" but saying that the organization cannot provide specifics because of the pending lawsuit in Georgia.

"Addressing issues of sexual misconduct has been important to USA Gymnastics for many years, and the organization is committed to promoting a safe environment for its athletes," the second statement read. "We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person's life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community over the years, and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction, and cooperate fully with law enforcement."

The most damning incident involves a coach named William "Bill" McCabe. According to the Star, USA Gymnastics received at least four complaints about him starting in 1998, when one gym owner warned the organization in a letter that McCabe "should be locked in a cage before someone is raped." One of the girls whom McCabe abused was the daughter of a woman named Lisa Ganser, who filed the lawsuit against USA Gymnastics:

USA Gymnastics never reported the allegations to police and, according to federal authorities, he began molesting an underage girl in 1999. McCabe continued to coach children for nearly seven more years, until Lisa Ganser went to the FBI with concerns about emails to her then-11-year-old daughter. McCabe was charged with molesting gymnasts, secretly videotaping girls changing clothes and posting their naked pictures on the internet. He pleaded guilty in 2006 in Savannah, Ga., to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He is serving a 30-year sentence.

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According to the Star, McCabe was fired by a gym in Cape Coral in 1996 after he was accused of preying on young girls. When the Florida gym's owner, Dan Dickey, discovered that McCabe had been hired by a gym elsewhere in the state two years later, he sent USA Gymnastics the letter warning officials about him.

"Dickey's letter, received by USA Gymnastics on Oct. 24, 1998 — and included in records in the Georgia lawsuit — described how he fired McCabe after a staff member had told him that McCabe bragged about having a 15-year-old girl in her underwear and said he thought he would be able to "f--- her very soon," the Star writes.

USA Gymnastics responded with a letter saying that it was "awaiting an official letter of complaint from a parent and athlete."

The owner of the second Florida gym also sent USA Gymnastics a letter after McCabe resigned following sexual-harassment allegations in 1998, detailing reports of other gyms that had fired him and saying that parents were "appalled" that USA Gymnastics had not revoked his credentials. McCabe continued to coach, however, and USA Gymnastics renewed his membership in December 1999.

Robert Colarossi, the organization's president at the time, admitted in a court deposition last year that USA Gymnastics dismissed the allegations against McCabe as hearsay.

McCabe continued coaching until 2006, eventually co-owning a gym in Rincon, Ga. Ganser, the woman who has filed the lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, enrolled her daughter at the gym in 2002. Four years later, Ganser discovered disturbing emails on her 11-year-old daughter's computer that purportedly were written by Carly Patterson, a U.S. gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"The exchanges started with casual gymnastics talk but escalated to sexual requests. Ganser's daughter also received pictures of naked female body parts," the Star writes.

Authorities say the emails were sent by McCabe, who was pretending to be Patterson. The FBI, alerted by Ganser, also discovered that McCabe had secretly recorded videos of young gymnasts as they changed clothes and posted the videos online. Prosecutors in McCabe's trial also said he had molested girls who were as young as fifth- or sixth-graders.

When asked by attorneys in the Ganser lawsuit why USA Gymnastics refused to investigate the claims, Steve Penny, the organization's current president, said it was over "concern about potential danger to a coach's reputation if an allegation proved to be false," a practice that could deter people from reporting abuse in the future, according to experts contacted by the Star.

"And one of the most important reasons that you substantiate a claim is because the potential for, if you will allow the expression, a witch hunt, becomes very real," Penny said in court papers uncovered by the Star. "And so it's possible that someone may make a claim like this because they don't like someone or because they heard a rumor or because they received information through other third parties.

"You have to take that very seriously," Penny continued, "because the coach is as much a member as the athlete."

Penny refused to be interviewed for the Star's story, with USA Gymnastics issuing a statement touting its "long and proactive history of developing policy to protect its athletes" and pledging to "remain diligent in evaluating new and best practices which should be implemented."

Shelley Haymaker, an Indiana lawyer who represents victims in child-welfare cases, told the Star that USA Gymnastics' approach "sickens" her.

"USAG may not have been the hand that ultimately abused these innocent children," Haymaker said, "but it was definitely the arm."