by Irvin Muchnick
This week I published the e-book PENN STATE IN THE POOL: The Cover-Up of the USA Swimming Youth Coach Sex Abuse Scandal. It includes, from court records, a facsimile printout of a July 2010 email in which David Berkoff – who won gold medals for swimming the backstroke legs of victorious American medley relay teams in both the 1988 and 1992 Olympics – conversed with Jeff Chida.
This Minnesota swimming parent was raising a stink about an allegedly molesting coach in his parts, three months after ABC’s 20/20 blew the whistle on the biggest known pedophilia ring outside the Catholic Church. “Denying knowledge of [REDACTED] and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie,” Berkoff wrote.
(The subject line of the email was “Re: Norm Havercroft,” so the redaction would seem to refer to him – one of many sickos whose serial abusive conduct was enabled, denied, and lied about, across decades, by our U.S. Olympic Committee-created national competitive youth swimming organization. But in a telephone interview yesterday, Berkoff said no, he was referring to someone else. For purposes of today’s story, that detail is not terribly important.)
Berkoff’s 2010 email continued: “They knew about it because we (coaches and athletes) were all talking about it in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I was told by several of [REDACTED] swimmers that he was sleeping with [REDACTED] in 1988. I was told the whole [REDACTED] story from Pablo Morales over a handful of beers and nearly threw up.”
Berkoff went on to explain that this knowledge would motivate him to form an abuse subcommittee when he later served on the board of directors of USA Swimming. Eventually Berkoff left the board in frustration over his inability to get anyone else “willing to take on these perverts” under the executive director at the time, Ray Essick.
But a funny thing happened in September 2010, just two months after David Berkoff’s emails with Jeff Chida: Essick’s successor, Chuck Wielgus, who took over in 1997, reappointed Berkoff to the board.
In the view of some child safety advocates, a not-so-funny thing followed: Berkoff stopped talking about sex crimes at USA Swimming. But in our conversation yesterday, Berkoff insisted he was misunderstood.
“As a board member, I have to be careful of what I say,” Berkoff told me. “I think the 2010 changes in the conduct code and publication of banned coaches were a huge step, and a lot more is being implemented behind the scenes. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Chuck wants to do the right thing and root out any coach who ever violated an athlete. But these things take time, and the bulk of the problem actually predates Chuck.”
I replied to Berkoff that my own take on Wielgus is less charitable, since San Jose attorney B. Robert Allard, who represents victims, has nailed the swimming chieftain on several non-trivial material lies in court proceedings subsequent to the 20/20 piece two years ago. And if the mantra is “changing the culture,” that should include holding the leadership accountable.
Swimming legend Pablo Morales (Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose; Stanford; 1992 Olympic swimming team captain and 100-meter butterfly gold medalist), now the coach at the University of Nebraska, emphatically denied ever having anything resembling the conversation Berkoff described.
“I have absolutely ZERO recollection of having sat down with David Berkoff ‘over a handful of beers’ for any occasion, much less to engage in a conversation about coaches who were having inappropriate relationships with their swimmers,” Morales emailed me. “… Though I know David, I simply cannot recall any instance when he and I sat down over beers.”
Further, “Any statement attributed to me having any knowledge of the named coach is patently false” for all kinds of reasons – Morales stated that he hardly knew “[REDACTED]” and had no knowledge of such accusations.
Berkoff, however, offered some credible corroboration via additional details: the year was 1988, the place was Orlando, Florida, and Adrian Moorhouse, a British Olympian, was with them at a Mexican joint. “I’ve been deposed three times in connection with all these abuse allegations, and my memory checks out,” said Berkoff, now a lawyer in Billings, Montana.
In a post later Wednesday at my blog, http://concussioninc.net, I will publish the full text of Morales’ email, as well as Berkoff’s refutation of it. Both men profess mutual admiration and say the other is simply mistaken, making the dispute here something of a sideshow. And inasmuch as Berkoff ultimately called me back on deadline – in contrast with the stonewalling of Wielgus and USA Swimming’s corporate sponsors – another sideshow might be the suggestion (which initially inspired this column) that Berkoff has a “mystery” role on the current board.
Now, as to whether Berkoff is being too cagey and corporate in his approach to draining the swamp at USA Swimming? That is another question whose answer I don’t yet know.
Meanwhile, the State Assembly Public Safety Committee yesterday voted 4 to 1, with 1 abstention, in favor of Assemblymember Jim Beall’s AB 1628 – tightening California child sex abuse reporting requirements and widening the statute of limitations. The only voiced opposition was from the California Catholic Conference; executive director Ned Dolejsi said, “We are opposing the legislation in its current form.”
Depending on your perspective, either USA Swimming is the wet Catholic Church, or the Catholic Church is the dry USA Swimming.
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