Pop Quiz: What Does U.S.A. Gymnastics Have In Common With The Roman Catholic Church?

Both are large, powerful organizations that facilitated the sexual abuse of children in order to protect their money and reputation.

Yes, you can add Penn state to that list too.

I’m really sick today, and it’s hard writing, thinking and especially typing, but maybe I don’t have to explicate this so much.  Larry Nassar, the national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, is accused of abusing dozens of female gymnasts. More than 80 victims have come forward to claim that he sexually assaulted them. Dr. Nassar was accused of 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct last month in Michigan. The scandal has also claimed Steve Penny (above), president of U.S.A. Gymnastics, who recently resigned after 12 years in the post.

A sport that has its priorities straight does not hire someone like Penny to lead it. He had been the director of media and public relations for U.S.A. Cycling in the early 1990s,promoting the sport and its superstar, Lance Armstrong. When he took the job at U.S.A. Gymnastics, one of his responsibilities there was to evaluate sexual assault accusations and determine if they warranted being reported to the police. Notes Juliet Macur in the New York Times,

“This is how the world of Olympic sports in the United States has operated for years: No one thought it strange that a sports marketer was in the role of sex crimes investigator.”

Is it any surprise that the culture of women’s gymnastics was poisoned with sexual predators? We had been told by Nadia Comenici that she had been abused, and the sport’s optics were, to use a technical term, oogie. All those tiny women-girls, their growth and maturation retarded by dieting and excessively rigorous training, being hugged repeatedly by bear-like coaches: I stopped finding the sport anything but disturbing years ago. (My feminist friends, who worshiped the little sprites—the ice-skaters too–told me I had a dirty mind.) Here is  a section of a recent column by former gymnastic champion Jessica Howard:

By the time I reached the World Championships in 1999, my hips hurt so badly that at times I could barely walk. That was the environment I trained in that I believe created an opening for Larry Nassar, the national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, to sexually abuse me…the first time I met “Larry” I immediately trusted him. He was the premier USA Gymnastics doctor with an international reputation, and I felt lucky to have been invited to the ranch to work with him.

For our first appointment, he asked me to wear loose shorts and no underwear. That seemed strange, but I obeyed. As in training, I wanted to be perfect. He began to massage my legs, and then quickly moved inwards on my thighs. He then massaged his way into me. I was rigid and uncomfortable, but I didn’t realize what was happening. I was confused, and thought that it must just be what had to happen. This scenario happened repeatedly over the course of my week at the ranch. At no time was there ever another adult in the room. Coming off of a difficult year of training, Dr. Nassar reached out as the good guy, supporting me emotionally and promising me relief from the pain. Now I know that in actuality he expertly abused me under the guise of “treatment.”

I trusted USA Gymnastics. But I was sexually abused, as were other elite athletes, including Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, and Jeannette Antolin, who was a U.S. national team member. And the abuse was not limited to Dr. Nassar. According to more than 5,600 pages of USA Gymnastics records released to the IndyStar on March 3 after a lengthy court battle, some of the 54 coaches with sexual abuse complaint files spanning 10 years weren’t banned from gymnastics until years after USA Gymnastics discovered they were convicted of crimes against children.

Other accounts tell how this was ingrained in the system:

What took everyone so long?

According to court documents released this month, in response to a request by The Indianapolis Star, which Penny called “a witch hunt,” U.S.A. Gymnastics had complaint files on 54 coaches, from 1996 to 2006. Those coaches were accused of misconduct, including sexually assaulting their athletes, and the federation had empowered itself to investigate those cases before deciding whether to contact law enforcement. In a deposition in one lawsuit brought against U.S.A. Gymnastics by a gymnast charging abuse, here’s Penny’s explanation for his failure to act: “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are — if you are a third party to some allegation.”

Even when a child’ safety is involved—no duty to report. Nice. More:

In 2011, U.S.A. Gymnastics received a detailed account of abuse involving Marvin Sharp, a former coach of the year, but Penny and the federation didn’t report it until 2015. There was a lot to be suspicious about.About 15 miles from U.S.A. Gymnastics’ headquarters, Sharp had a photo studio in his Indianapolis gym. On the gym’s website, he offered “portrait sittings and ‘action’ portraits.” Sharp, who coached the Olympian and world champion Bridget Sloan, would ask parents to leave the room for a closed-door, two-hour session when he took pictures of the gymnasts. In many cases, the parents complied.

In August 2015, Sharp was arrested after a 14-year-old came forward with claims of abuse. He was later charged with child pornography, child molestation and sexual abuse with a minor. In a raid of Sharp’s house and gym, the police found more than 1,000 digital photos of girls dressed in leotards, adult shirts, bathing suits and dresses, with no underwear and with their genitals exposed. These girls were as young as 5.

Wouldn’t you think that situations where men enter a field that places them in close contact with trusting and vulnerable children would be one where there is special scrutiny to be vigilant  regarding this crime? It seems like the opposite is true, even after the horrendous example of the Catholic priests.

How many crimes could have been prevented if Penny had reported Sharp to the police back in 2011, and if U.S.A. Gymnastics did what was right in each report of sexual abuse it received — protect its athletes, not its organization? John Manly, a lawyer representing more than 70 clients in the case against Nassar, the former team doctor, has an idea.

“Hundreds of children would have been saved,” said Manly, who has also represented many clients who said they were abused by Roman Catholic priests. “An organization shouldn’t do the investigation, and we know why. We know it’s a failed model because that’s the Catholic bishops model from 2000. The best thing to do is, if you suspect child abuse, you pick up the phone, call the police and file a report.”

39 thoughts on “Pop Quiz: What Does U.S.A. Gymnastics Have In Common With The Roman Catholic Church?

  1. Sadly this isn’t the only US Olympics organization dealing with this. USA Swimming went through this last year. They too were covering for coaches who were molesting swimmers.

    Fortunately they’ve cleaned up their act since then.

  2. This stuff is everywhere.
    If I had to make a guess as to why I’d say as families disintegrate and “organizations” take their place the door opens wider to this kind of abuse. But, sure, by all means, let’s let the village raise our children.
    All these agencies that “help” families do what families are supposed to do seem to become morally bankrupt in this particular way.

    • But this isn’t letting a village raise your children, this is deciding to have your children lose their childhoods completely. I’ve gotten into fights with friends about this issue, because I am anti-child acting and anti-child sports (to this degree). In our area, sports are huge, and I know parents who are having their talented kids train in areas away from home because of the dream of them during into professional sports stars. I think this harms children … even if they don’t have pedophiles in their midst.

      Maybe it is easy for me to make this claim because I can guarantee that my girls will never be sports legends, but they are both musically gifted. And I let them take lessons, go to arts camps (day camps only right now), etc. But I would never let them work for Disney, Nick Jr, any movie studio, etc. if they ever came knocking. (And my husband, who is an entertainment lawyer, agrees with me.) I also would never let them go to boarding school for high school — and I know many families who do that as well.

      But do I let my “village” help raise my children? Certainly to some degree. I trust my kids’ awesome teachers implicitly, and I am lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where we all take turns with carpools, school vacations, babysitting, etc. to the point where none of us ever have to hire a paid babysitter. To me, that kind of village is amazing and beneficial to my children.

      • But Sparty, you and Mr. Sparty, Esq. are strong, present parents. Predators prey on the children of dysfunctional families. They zero in on the susceptible kids like heat seeking missles. Your girls are protected by you and your husband’s strong presence.

        Be careful of the high performance musical education establishment. Read “Mozart in the Jungle.” Male music teachers prey upon young female students. It’s entrenched.

        It doesn’t take a village, Sparty, it takes strong parents, like you, to raise a child. So your children can flourish in and take advantage of the village.

        • Well, right now I am teaching them flute and a little old lady is teaching them piano. They study voice at school and we’re always singing at home. They also have acting at school in a very caring and sweet environment.

          But I hear you. I went through college on a music scholarship — I know the type.

          Are you watching Mozart in the Jungle? Love that show!

          • Does the show have anything to do with the book? I thought the title of the book was terribly misleading, alluding to a very brief chapter of no real consequence. The book was really terribly grim. Does the main character in the TV show spend all her time carving reeds for her oboe and flying all over the country auditioning for a chair in an orchestra so she can make a fraction of what a beginning paralegal makes? I’m guessing not.

            • They keep the oboist in NYC and she works as the assistant to the conductor and sometimes sits in with the orchestra if someone is ill. The show is both depressing and hilarious — it spends a lot of time on orchestra politics, fundraising, and the psycho people who tend to be the most gifted.

              • The author of the book struck me as both gifted and psycho. The really amazing high performance musicians are the few who are both prodigiously talebted and normal, articulate, intelligent, down to earth human beings.

      • Maybe in its original form the village was a benefit and a bonus in raising children. It was a group of families and parents with the same value system. But in its present definition, of replacing parents with the state or some other social organization, the village is an opportunity for unscrupulous people of every description to gain access to children who are away from their parents influence. It seems like there is no good thing that can’t be corrupted by someone or some social entity who uses the good thing to achieve an evil.

  3. From the same recent column by former gymnastic champion Jessica Howard:

    As an adult, I spent years serving on the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors with a mission of protecting children in my sport from the psychological abuse that I endured. But the meetings seemed to revolve around two things: money and medals. When a sexual abuse case came up during my time on the board, the concern was about the reputation of the coach — not the accusation of the athlete. As I have attempted to come to terms with what happened to me as a teenager, it has become glaringly obvious that USA Gymnastics has not done nearly enough to protect athletes from any form of abuse.

    Is it fair to ask, “What took her so long?” or does that amount to victim blaming?

  4. ” . . . and the federation [USA Gymnastics] had empowered itself to investigate those cases before deciding whether to contact law enforcement.”

    Any organization that “empowers” itself to investigate any potential crime occurring within the organization rather than bring in the appropriate outside investigative agency is empowering itself to be an accomplice and right off the bat is saying “we have something to hide.”

    • Like, oh, say, colleges that don’t report alleged sexual misconduct by students to local police.

      Organized sports are inherently abusive when you have adults making large amounts of money and entire lucrative careers off of the efforts of minors. The classic example is “athletic directors.” These are white guys in charge who make ridiculous amounts of money schmoozing and covering their and their employees’ asses.

      I’m a big fan of disorganized sports. As a kid, we played our own games of baseball and basketball and touch football. No adults. No refs. No trophies and no pizza. We just went home for dinner. It was great.

      • Another good example except that rather than wanting to cover up the problem colleges investigating sexual misconduct want to be the judge, jury and executioner. Either one perverts justice.

        • That is where the “deal colleague” Title IX letter went all wrong.

          The sole role of any organization should be to report to law enforcement, cooperate, and stay out of the way. When the investigation is over, stand by the results of the legal system. Doing that will keep you out of trouble.

          • What makes you think that colleges could not adjudicate sexual assault claims? why, when Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexual assault, Graham Spanier and company at Penn State took a look and said nothing more to see here, move along now. Who are we to question their judgment?

            • Michael, you ask, sarcastically, I know “Who are we to question their judgment?”, and I answer “we” are the people who pay the bills, through taxes, tuition and their really ludicrous fee’s. Thus, since they work for us, “we” have every right to question their judgment.

    • But how about the parents?
      I assume that they went to the federation (directly or indirectly); why didn’t they go to the police?

      • I think because they had faith in the organization they were hoping would make their little girl a star. If they made a complaint, they were told something like “don’t worry, Mr. Penny checked it out, we won’t let anything happen to your daughter, you can trust us” and they did trust them and were satisfied with that response. Basically what Sam said above.

        I believe Jack identified another reason when he said, “I stopped finding the sport anything but disturbing years ago. (My feminist friends, who worshiped the little sprites—the ice-skaters too–told me I had a dirty mind.)” The message that the reason you think there is something going on is because you’re evil is going to inhibit reporting.

  5. Pop Quiz: What Does U.S.A. Gymnastics Have In Common With The Roman Catholic Church?

    A love of bling?

    Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

      • eh? Gods I hope not.

        But in this case it was a commentary on the RCC’s history of being ostentatious, gold crosses, gold metals, bling.

        • And flitting around in flowing gowns and elaborately colored vestments and waving censors emitting clouds of sweet smelling smoke while making sure the rectory is boys only?

          • Just checking to make sure it’s okay to make fun of Gay or Questioning if they’re Catholic priests. At times I find it difficult to keep the protected classes and the members of the patriarchy separate. In the culture wars, it’s sometimes hard to tell the players without a program.

          • When you put it that way….

            Really, clothing styles are the ultimate in social construct. We’re born naked. What worked hundreds of years ago looks silly now. In the west, one day men started shortening their skirts until eventually their skirts were gone, now they were wearing breeches like those fancy pants (because, hey pants are fancy) military horse riding types. And even after that the nineteenth century nightshirt looks like a nightgown today, cosmetics, colors, cuts even fabric choice, it all changes and after a couple decades people forget it was ever any other way. Costumes that are a few hundred years out of date aren’t really cross-dressing any more than the wigs in British courts are.

              • And that for you to say your bling comment was sexual orientation or gender neutral is disingenuous. But you probably believe sexual orientation is simply a social construct.

  6. For a time singing was headed that way too, with prepubescent chanteuses Charlotte Church and now Jackie Evancho leading the way. There is something inherently wrong with young girls wearing grown-up gowns and makeup, singing grown-up songs, and then getting huge hugs from bear-like managers and conductors, to say nothing of pathetic male fans with varying degrees of gray in their hair, fat around their middles, and not a wife or gf anywhere in sight.

  7. “When he took the job at U.S.A. Gymnastics, one of his responsibilities there was to evaluate sexual assault accusations and determine if they warranted being reported to the police. ”

    That should have been an easy job, because the answer is “Yes”. Administrators never learn the investigative skills required to conduct as exhaustive an investigation that trained, experienced police detectives are capable of. I include campus police in this condemnation, since their primary duty is enforcing parking regulations. Having said that, Texas has, as part of it’s Good Samaritan law, a provision requiring that a person or persons who have become cognizant of the abuse or neglect of a child and DOES NOT REPORT IT becomes subject to prosecution and conviction of a felony. I am very much in favor of such a law.

  8. Our son is 12 and is a competitive swimmer. I don’t know who’s worse: swim parents or gymnastics parents. Our son competes because he likes and he does well. Our team has a very strict coach-swimmer policy: at no time are the coaches to be alone in the clubhouse with swimmers. The coaches must be on deck at all times. Competitions are a totally different thing, though, because you are competing against three or four other teams and it is hard to keep an eye on you swimmer. We have made it clear to our son that if anyone tries to touch him, he should fight like hell and run to us. No exceptions. We also require him to change into to his racesuit in a stall, not out in the open.

    That being written, I do see a huge risk. We try to do what we can to minimize issues and we talk to our son about them. We also try hard not to be the ‘swim parent’ that is keyed into everything he does, every point of improvement. We don’t have a private trainer for private lessons prior to swim practice, and we don’t video everything he does from putting his goggles to finishing.


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