In the past two decades, at least 368 underage gymnasts may have been sexually abused while USA Gymnastics either purposefully covered it up or turned a blind eye, according to a nine-month investigation by the IndyStar.
The outlet "scoured thousands of pages of public records" spanning 20 years to identify hundreds of victims from every level of competition, beginner to Olympian. The youngest recorded was six years old.
USA Gymnastics is the sport's national governing body and while it does not encompass every gym and every gymnast in the United State, it does account for 125,000 athletes, 25,000 "professional members" — including coaches — and 3,450 clubs across the country, according to the Star. The report alleged that USA Gymnastics doesn't do enough to stop abuse when it knows what's going on.
Because the organization prizes competitive success above all else, according to the Star, it allows suspected abusers to keep working with gymnasts even while those individuals are under investigation. It allegedly subjects victims who come forward to a "long, arduous, painful" reporting process, in the words of one victim, that seems to blame the gymnasts rather than the accused.
Because of this attitude, individual gyms might fire offenders for inappropriate conduct if they get wind of it, the Star reported, but they won't necessarily publicize it for fear of losing business. People fired for sexual misconduct can go (and, often, have gone) on to work and reoffend at other gyms.
"It's not the predator in the bushes you need to worry about," a gymnast whose coach allegedly molested her, said, according to the Star. "It's those in positions of power and authority ... who harm precious and vulnerable children." That coach was David Reiakvam, who in 2012 pleaded guilty to abusing two athletes.
In September, the IndyStar broke the news that Dr. Larry Nassar, a former physician for USA Gymnastics, had molested two of the gymnasts under his care. The number of his accusers escalated thereafter, topping 30, and led to his arrest in November. Nassar is charged with three counts of criminal sexual assault against minors, while two well-known coaches — Bela and Marta Karolyi — also face a lawsuit for having purposefully ignored abuse.
The Star article published Thursday suggests this type of behavior was far from rare. As Marci Hamilton, CEO of advocacy group Child USA, told the outlet that the scale of abuse is likely far larger even than its nine-month investigation suggests. Hamilton speculated that 368 victims probably represented a "severe undercount," and that the real number of cases could be three to five times greater.
In an emailed statement, USA Gymnastics denied that it was complicit in any wrongdoing and said it found the sexual exploitation of athletes "appalling."
"We do our very best to treat each athlete with respect, dignity, care and support throughout the process of reporting and handling of abuse, including respecting his or her right to privacy," Paul Parilla, USA Gymnastics Board of Directors Chairman, said in the statement. "USA Gymnastics policies mandate that when anyone affiliated with USA Gymnastics or member clubs suspect potential abuse, the appropriate authorities should be notified."
The organization's policies regarding sexual abuse stress education as a preventative measure, noting that its complaint process is separate from law enforcement's reporting process. USA Gymnastics urges "those affected" to notify child services or the authorities, according to a policy overview a USA Gymnastics spokesperson provided to Mic. But according to the Star, much of the problem comes from the fact that the organization isn't "setting strict ground rules and enforcing them."
It has, however, hired former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels to review and evaluate their sexual misconduct procedures.
"Nothing is more important to the leadership of USA Gymnastics than protecting the young people who learn and train at gymnastics facilities around the country," Parilla's statement read. "Keeping young people safe requires sustained vigilance by everyone — coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials."