by B. Robert Allard
(The author of this guest column is California Lawyer magazine’s 2011 Lawyer of the Year and heads the group Lawyers Against the Sex Abuse of Children.)
I have frequently been asked in the last few days why it took USA Swimming so long to properly respond (even that is now in question in light of their decision to delay the National Board of Review hearing, but that is another issue) to the sexual allegations against USA Swimming member coach Rick Curl by former USA Swimming minor swimmer Kelley Currin, despite the fact USA Swimming has known about Mr. Curl for decades. Instructive in answering this question is a review of the following interview which was recently conducted of USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus and president Bruce Stratton and published by Swimming World:
This piece tells us three things not only about Rick Curl but also about the mindset of USA Swimming’s leaders, particularly Wielgus, and why real change cannot occur until they are replaced.
The insatiable quest for money, money and more money:
The very first thing that these leaders talk about when asked to assess the current status of the sport is TV and sponsorships, i.e. MONEY. Dealing with sex abuse issues is bad for earning money because 1) you have to spend time on it when you can otherwise spend the time making money, and 2) it makes them look bad and therefore threatens the ability gain sponsorships, i.e. to make MONEY. In other words, having to be bothered with sex abuse matters takes away from the bottom line. It is a distraction to them and history has told us that they refuse to deal with sex abuse matters until they are absolutely forced to do so, as we saw in September of 2010 when they were forced to make changes to their child protection laws due to bad press disseminated by ABC, ESPN and USA Today and others and now with their taking action against Curl only because The Washington Post got involved (remember that they had all of this information on Curl for months and they did not act on it and set an “emergency hearing” until they knew that the Post was coming out with an article). So what we have here is a most unwilling participant in the world of child protection, kind of like a child who will not go to church unless his mother is dragging him inside by the arm.
“This is a societal issue and not unique to USA Swimming”:
To this day, USA Swimming’s leaders refuse to concede, after all of these years, that the problem with sexual molestation is unique to swimming. They fall back on a belief that this is a “societal” issue which happens to involve USA Swimming and that USA Swimming should be commended for taking the bull by the horns and being a leader in the field such that they now serve as a role model for other NGB’s. This is pure and utter hogwash. Sex abuse has particularly plagued USA Swimming for decades – at a rate far in excess of our society as a whole. Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardorff Schmidt reported sexual abuse by her swim coach from 1968 through the Olympic Games in Munich. World record setting swimmer Diana Nyad reports that she was sexually molested by her youth swim coach beginning when she was just 14. When USA Swimming was formed in 1978, the George Haines Santa Clara International Swim Center was the “crown jewel” of the swim world. This is the center that produced Olympians like Mark Spitz and Donna De Verona. Mitch Ivey, who succeeded Coach Haines in running this center, quickly developed a reputation for sexually molesting young girls. Noel Moran Quillici was an Ivey victim. He married her when she turned 18. She divorced him a few months later when she caught him sleeping with another underage swimmer. Despite Ivey’s background, which was thoroughly chronicled in an ESPN expose in the mid 90’s that led to his firing as a college coach, USA Swimming continues to refuse to take any action against him.
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 to USA Swimming in terms of the number of reported sexual molesters.
When you compare the number of pedophile coaches and potential victims, USA Swimming presents a far greater societal problem than any other known organization. And yet, despite the evidence which establishes a pattern of deceit and cover ups, no one within USA Swimming’s control group has been subject to criminal prosecution or any other form of accountability.
“We only recently discovered that there was a problem with the sex abuse of children”:
Mr. Wielgus states that making changes to USA Swimming’s child protection laws was not even “on their radar” until within recently. Again, an attempt to distort the truth. Attempts to cure this problem have also gone back decades.
In the early 1990’s, Olympic gold medalist David Berkoff spearheaded a movement to create a Code of Conduct and implement a background screening program due to what he observed to be an “issue of sexual abuse of swimmers”. Specifically, he noted that one high profile coach from Texas and “others [were] banging their swimmers” during the 1988 Olympic games. Mr. Berkoff states:
“I heard the whole [expletive deleted] story from Pablo Morales over a handful of beers and nearly threw up. I was told [name deleted] was molesting [name deleted] for years starting when she was twelve by some Texas guys. That was the entire reason I formed the abuse subcommittee. I was sick and tired of this crap. No one was standing up. No one was standing up to these perverts.”
Due primarily to pressure exerted by a powerful swim coaches’ lobby called the American Swim Coaches Association (“ASCA”) led by John Leonard these proposals were met with great resistance. A formal code of conduct was not fully implemented until 1999 and a rudimentary background screening program did not come into existence until 2006.
a. USA Swimming was forced by the US Olympic Committee to provide protection for sex abuse victims:
Not only did USA Swimming fail to protect member youth but it implemented specific and calculated actions to ensure that when sexual molestation occurred, the victims had no recourse through insurance benefits. Prior to 1999, in an apparent effort to insulate USA Swimming from liability, the United States Sports Insurance Company “(“USSIC”), USA Swimming’s captive insurance carrier, added a “sexual abuse and molestation exclusion” in liability insurance provided to member clubs. Thus, when a victim of sex abuse by a swim coach sought compensation, none was available. Since most swim clubs were run by volunteer parents and operated with limited capital, molested swimmers were effectively left “high and dry” without legal recourse and compensation.
In 1999, it was discovered that USA Swimming was the only one of the forty six (46) National Governing Bodies (“NGB”) in the United States with such an exclusion (so much for being the model for other NGB’s). To protect member swimmers from sex abuse, the United States Olympic Committee (“USOC”) mandated that this practice be abandoned immediately. In May 3, 1999, USSIC’s insurance broker stated:
“USOC feels and mandates innocents should be protected by their NGB. Therefore can’t delete abuse and molestation. . . Requested we revise our policy or he would not allow any local member clubs, volunteers or members on premises (training center).”
In a May 4, 1999 letter, this broker further states:
“Per USOC directive, we need to delete Endorsement # 010 Abuse and Molestation Exclusion. They are threatening to cut back on funding and not allow the swim teams to use the training center.”
Under threats by the USOC, USA Swimming thereafter arranged for coverage for sex abuse victims. Not to be deterred, USA Swimming decided to provide only “limited” $100,000 insurance policies (per occurrence) for member clubs, while insuring USA Swimming and its LSC’s with multimillion dollar policies in an attempt to “counter the creativity of the plaintiff’s bar.”
b. Failed attempt to implement an effective “Zero Tolerance Policy” beginning in 2002:
In late October of 2002, USSIC’s Board met and determined that “[o]ne of the fastest growing areas of litigation is sexual misconduct” and that “USA Swimming has seen an increase in this area.” USSIC recommended that USA Swimming create a Task Force dealing with sexual misconduct. Legendary coach Richard Shoulberg of Pennsylvania was appointed as co-chair. After learning of Shouldberg’s appointment, ASCA Executive Director John Leonard asked to be a member; we believe this was to sabotage any progress. States Mr. Leonard in February of 2009:
“Surprising to me, [the USA Swimming’s President] is considering Dick Shoulberg as the chair of the Task Force. I hate the whole topic. But I heard loud and clear that ‘our claims record shows that we have more and more of this going on. . . ‘ so I want to see this in black and white and not just out of some lawyer’s mouth, looking for more work.”
One of the committee tasks was to develop a sexual misconduct “Zero Tolerance Policy.” Exemplars of such policies were circulated, including ones from the tennis and softball NGB’s. When a comprehensive draft of this policy was circulated, it was met with immediate opposition from Mr. Leonard who stated that the “possibility of abuse of this policy against abuse, is HUGE” and that “I would work AGAINST the adoption of this policy and urge others to do likewise.”
In another email, dated June 17, 2003, Mr. Leonard makes the following threat if this policy were advanced:
“I signed on for a Sexual Abuse Task Force, not something called Mental abuse, Emotional Abuse or anything else. If this committee decides to go this route, I will resign since I cannot and will not support it and will campaign and write actively AGAINST any policy that goes beyond Sexual Abuse. All the rest is totally nebulous, and too much like art…’I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.’”
Mr. Leonard later states:
“The chaos that will ensue by suspending people based on accusations rather than convictions should result in some good lawsuits, especially if they are based on ‘background checks’ which are ludicrously inaccurate.”
On July 8, 2003, committee chair Coach Shoulberg sent the committee an article on statutory rape and related the following:
“This statement is a thought that someone I think our athletes need to be reminded of the seriousness of statutory rape and that it is looked upon as a felony. Unfortunately, I know of instances (after the fact) on national trips that I have been on that these acts have taken place. In some cases, I was advised years later. My concern is if we are trying to protect the athletes and our organization, we must provide as much information as possible to all members of U.S. Swimming to protect first themselves and second the organization.”
Apparently frustrated with the progress of the committee, Coach Shoulberg stated in August of 2010:
“. . . I would hate to see our organization ever in the predicament of the current Roman Catholic Church- protecting child molesters!”
In November of 2003, USA Swimming’s Board decided only to implement a very basic one paragraph version of the “Zero Tolerance Policy.” Committee member and Olympic team member Jill Chasson could not hide her disappointment when she said:
“I am pretty disappointed in the Board, frankly. If all that (the President and the Board) felt was needed to address the insurance issues was a one-paragraph policy statement, (USA Swimming’s attorney) could have done that in 10 minutes. It seems that a lot of thoughtful work by a ground of good people (not to mention a task force budget) went pretty much for naught.”
Coach Shoulberg was more direct in voicing his disgust:
“I am disappointed on the outcome of the Board. I feel that there are too many coaches still coaching who have destroyed kids’ lives and there will be more coaches in the future who will destroy kids’ lives.”
c. Failed attempt to implement an effective background screening program beginning in 2003:
Once again at the suggestion of USSIC, USA Swimming in 2003 created a task force charged with developing a background screening program to protect young swimmers from pedophile coaches. The task force proposed a program involving a “menu” of options including “mandatory checks” of prior employers. A program was ultimately implemented, however, it failed to include numerous recommendations of the task force (including reference checks). This program was further watered down in 2009 so as to render it essentially useless.
d. Failed attempt to implement an effective child protection program beginning of 2004:
In 2004, again at the urging of USSIC, USA Swimming’s Board adopted a Child Protection Program (“CPP”). The stated purpose of the policy included “safeguarding minors against emotional, physical or sexual abuses.” (Id.). The CPP (as initially conceived by the Board) was intended to provide for enhanced/expansive background checks. (Id.) Following adoption by the Board, the final CPP policy manual went through various revisions. (Id.). Ultimately a policy was approved that was applicable to all USA Swimming “employees” and “volunteers.” Among other things, the CPP required enhanced background screening of these individuals as well as mandatory reporting of any improper conduct to USA Swimming.
USA Swimming and Mr. Wielgus, however, failed to implement the CPP as approved by its Board. This failure included refusal to appoint a Director of Child Protection as well as the refusal to require volunteers to complete mandatory questionnaires and screening before participating in any USA Swimming select camp or other sanctioned event. Rendering the program completely futile, Mr. Hogan unilaterally removed, without prior approval by the Board of Directors, the CPP from the USA Swimming website in 2010.
e. USA Swimming’s Acknowledgement of a Systemic Sex Abuse Problem in 2009:
In September of 2009, when addressing ASCA members at the group’s annual meeting, Mr. Wielgus publicly acknowledged that he had been notified about USA Swimming coaches sexually abusing swimmers “almost every week.” He added, “One of my greatest fears is that someone is going to start linking all of this together, and there is going to be a ‘60 Minute’ documentary about youth sports like gymnastics and swimming.”
Overall, sex abuse has plagued this organization for decades and will continue to plague it for decades to come unless this leadership group is removed. USA Swimming’s leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that they are utterly incapable of taking affirmative action until pressured to do so by the media and/or victim advocates. Until then there is one objective: Make as much money you can off of amateur athletes to that there is adequate funding for multi six figure salaries, first class tickets, five start hotels and an overall “rock star” lifestyle. This is the epitome of the exploitation of athletes, culminating in the sexual molestation of minor swimmers to which a blind eye is perpetually turned. It is time for a change.