by Irvin Muchnick
This article is adapted from the ebook PENN STATE IN THE POOL: The Cover-Up of the USA Swimming Youth Coach Sex Abuse Scandal, which will be published shortly.
I can report exclusively that the long-running child sex abuse scandal at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s governing body for youth swimming is now on the radar screens of both the California state legislature and members of the Bay Area’s Congressional delegation.
On April 17, the State Assembly Public Safety Committee will hold hearings on Assembly Bill 1628, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Beall and State Senator Elaine Alquist, both of San Jose. The bill would raise from age 26 to 35 the statute of limitations for seeking justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
In addition, it would expand the categories of mandatory reporting of molestations within private entities (such as swim clubs) that use public facilities (such as aquatic centers). Finally, to promote community awareness and accountability, the law would require open disclosure of heretofore secret settlements of civil lawsuits in this area.
This initiative stems from the work of San Jose attorney B. Robert Allard, who has represented several swimmer victims and heads the group Lawyers Against the Sex Abuse of Children. (Each of the last two years, the American Trial Lawyers Association named Allard one of California’s top 100 trial lawyers.)
Allard also is making progress at the federal level through local Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda – though House committee hearings on USA Swimming are not possible as long as the Republicans are the majority party there. One floated legislative idea involves increasing the scope of the Mann Act, which covers the transport of minors across state lines for purposes of illicit sexual activity.
This new round of scrutiny in an Olympic year may or may not be a crowd-pleaser. But it is essential.
Last week in Beyond Chron, I updated the national swimming sex scandal, with strong Bay Area overtones, which ABC’s 20/20 broke in 2010. USA Swimming is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where it has a staff of 70 and annual revenues of more than $20 million, thanks largely to the sponsorships of such corporations as ConocoPhillips, Mutual of Omaha, AT&T, Marriott, and Speedo. Chuck Wielgus, the organization’s executive director since 1997, earns more than $750,000 a year. Some 300,000 young athletes compete in local, regional, and national meets sanctioned by USA Swimming.
Just as my first Beyond Chron swimming column was being published, the Orange County Register was reporting on the controversial departure and return of Ad’m Dusenbury, coach of the renowned Natadores club in Mission Viejo, amidst charges of an inappropriate relationship with an underage swimmer.
In the wake of the 20/20 story, Wielgus had announced reforms under what the Olympic Committee is now calling its “Safe Sport” program. USA Swimming has published the names of 59 club coaches who were expelled for conduct code violations. But attorney Allard asserts that there is a larger, confidential “flagged” list of additional pedophiles, many of whom are still coaching.
Allard told me: “The highly publicized recent cases at Penn State and Syracuse involved a comparative handful of victims of a single coach. USA Swimming has an estimated hundreds of victims of dozens of coaches. Other than the Catholic Church, no other known organization harbored more pedophiles than USA Swimming. And no other organization, on a pro rata basis, comes close in terms of the number of reported sexual molesters.”
As an example, Allard points to the case of a Southern California coach, Norm Havercroft, who previously held coaching positions in Woodside, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, and Saratoga. In 2001 Havercroft and his club at the time were sued by one of his victims. He was known for such practices as encouraging female swimmers to shower and stay in his hotel room or sleep over at his house. USA Swimming’s insurance carrier helped settle that lawsuit for six figures. Allard said Havercroft also molested his current client, Jancy Thompson, extensively between 1998 and 2002. The abuse began when Thompson, now 29 years old, was 15.
The Andy King story was extensively documented by 20/20. Like a number of coaches, he had a habit of dating his minor swimmers, one of whom he eventually married. While coaching in San Ramon, he proposed marrying one of his newer swimmers on her 16th birthday, after divorcing his ex-swimmer wife. In the public fallout, King left the San Ramon club but was allowed to simply migrate over the years to other teams in Hayward, Richmond, Modesto, and San Jose. Based largely on the testimony of one of Allard’s “Jane Doe” clients, who had been molested by King starting when she was 14 in 2008, King is now serving a life term in federal prison for offenses going all the way back to the 1980s.
(USA Swimming’s Wielgus has not responded to my requests for comment on these scenarios or on the questions posed at the end of my March 27 column.)
While we should welcome the possible involvement of Congresswoman Lofgren and Congressman Honda, I have misgivings over whether the Mann Act is the right way to drain the swamp at USA Swimming. Historically, that law itself has been abused by enforcers: boxer Jack Johnson, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, and rock-and-roller Chuck Berry are among the figures who were prosecuted under it, more because they belonged to the wrong race or sported controversial lifestyles or political views than because of any evidence that they were sex criminals.
As parents of daughters especially, we all have to be wary of another danger: smothering and disempowering them with Victorianism in the name of protection. That girls and young women have far more opportunities in sports than they formerly did is an overwhelmingly healthy thing overall, and they don’t need a message that society regards them as fragile whenever they venture into those fields. And of course sex does happen, for both good and ill-advised reasons.
That said, the American sports scene, with its rampantly professionalized values and its cult of the life-skills coach – who too often is a doofus at best, a sicko at worst – needs to be doing a much better job of taking care of our young people, male and female alike. The Penn State scandal, which helped trigger this renewed scrutiny of USA Swimming, is the tip of the iceberg … or the surface of the lap pool.
Irvin Muchnick’s website is https://concussioninc.net. His ebook on the swimming scandal is scheduled for publication later this month.