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USA Gymnastics accused of not reporting sex abuse allegations against coaches

An athlete on the balance beam during a training session for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games events at the Rio Olympic Arena.
An athlete on the balance beam during a training session for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games events at the Rio Olympic Arena. Li Xin (EPA)/The Canadian Press

The organization that governs gymnastics in the United States said it is “committed” to protecting its athletes from sexual abuse in the wake of a news report claiming the organization has failed to report abuse allegations to authorities.

“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 (USAG) president Steve Penny said in statement responding to the Indianapolis Star‘s investigation published Thursday.

“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.”

USA Gymnastics is the only governing body for the sport in the U.S. and oversees the selection and training of athletes for the Olympic Games and World Championships.

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The IndyStar investigation highlighted four cases involving coaches accused of abusing child athletes, three of which resulted in lengthy prison sentences; the fourth accused coach killed himself before going to trial. According to the publication, USAG didn’t “initiate a report” to police in any of those case.

One of those coaches, Mark Schiefelbein, reportedly had “a thick file of complaints” about his misconduct that only came to light when he was finally charged.

“The girl’s family was shocked to discover the history of complaints against Schiefelbein, which came to light only after prosecutors subpoenaed records from USA Gymnastics,” the IndyStar reported.

Schiefelbien was convicted on several counts of aggravated sexual battery and aggravated sexual exploitation in 2003 and was sentenced to 96 years in prison, although the sentence was eventually knocked down to 36 years behind bars.

But the IndyStar reported there are dozens more allegations that USAG were never passed on to police.

“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 IndyStar reported, citing court documents that indicated the dossier of allegations was filed in a cabinet at USAG headquarters in Indianapolis.

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But USAG president Penny asserted the organization “believes it has a duty to report to law enforcement whenever circumstances warrant.”

“USA Gymnastics seeks first-hand knowledge whenever allegations of abuse arise as the most reliable source to take action and as outlined in its bylaws and policies.”

Penny cited the case of coach Marvin Sharp, the coach who took his own life in 2015 after facing charges federal court, as an example of how it took action on sexual abuse allegations.

But the IndyStar reported USAG went to police with that claim four years after another “detailed complaint” that “warned that he shouldn’t be around children.”

USAG itself is facing a lawsuit itself, filed in a Georgia court by an alleged victim of another coach identified in the IndyStar report, William McCabe. He’s serving a 30-year sentence in a sexual exploitation case involving an 11 year-old girl. Although McCabe was convicted in 2006, the IndyStar reported there were complaints made to USGA about him dating back to 1998.

USAG’s appeal of the lawsuit claims the organization didn’t breach its duty by “failing to investigate McCabe.”

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The mother of the girl involved in the 2006 case, that sent McCabe to federal prison, disputes that.

“USA Gymnastics had enough information, I think, to have done something about this. It didn’t have to happen to my daughter, and it didn’t have to happen to other little girls,” Lisa Gasner told the IndyStar.

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USAG said it is “limited” in what it can say in response to the investigation because that case is still before the court and a judge is considering the organization’s request.

But the organization claimed it gave IndyStar reporters “substantial information” that demonstrated its commitment to ensure the safety of gymnasts, efforts “within the scope of its jurisdiction and governance structure.”

“We feel the Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture of our efforts,” Penny said in the statement.