The decades-long saga of molestation of girls by coaches in our Olympic swimming program has reached a new milestone with Hall of Famer Murray Stephens, who last year abruptly left Michael Phelps’ team, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, after allegations of sexual abuse by a former swimmer. USA Swimming says it duly reported the swimmer’s “complaint and information” to the Baltimore County police, but the police so far have not been able to locate a document of such a report.
(Investigative reporter Tim Joyce broke the Baltimore story. This blog identified Stephens as the coach in question.)
For readers catching up on a comprehensive history of this scandal, we reprint below my article in July, which was originally commissioned, but not published in a timely fashion, by Yahoo Sports before it got picked up by the sports education and advocacy site MomsTeam (http://www.momsteam.com/poisoned-waters-sex-abuse-by-male-coaches-of-female-swimmers-continues-despite-USA-Swimming-efforts).
Since then, prominent coach Rick Curl has been permanently banned after disclosure of his serial statutory rapes of young swimmer Kelley Davis in the 1980s, followed by his hush-money payments to her family totaling $150,000.
July 24, 2012
THREE DAYS BEFORE THE JUNE 27 START in Omaha, Nebraska, of the Olympic Trials, USA Swimming’s marquee domestic event, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was led away in handcuffs from a courtroom 1,100 miles to the east after being found guilty by a jury of 45 counts of child sex abuse.
While the Sandusky verdict focused the spotlight on the troubling issue of child abuse and pedophilia in sports, it also served as a stark reminder that, as swimming’s Olympic season began, the story of widespread sex abuse of underage female swimmers by coaches wasn’t making as much as a ripple in the pool.
Two years earlier, a chilling investigation by ABC’s 20/20 had exposed a pedophile problem in local and regional competitive swimming — an activity overseen by USA Swimming, the Congressionally-sanctioned national governing body for the sport’s 300,000 kids and 12,000 coaches — that made the Sandusky scandal pale by comparison. The 20/20 broadcast included an interview with a gold medal swimmer, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, recounting her years of molestation at the hands of a Hall of Fame coach. (Schmidt did not identify the coach by name. But an internal USA Swimming document containing a list of “flagged” but never formally charged coaches — authored by David Berkoff, another former gold medalist — would become an exhibit to Berkoff’s deposition in an ongoing civil suit in California by former swimmer Jancy Thompson. The Berkoff list suggests that the coach was Paul Bergen.)
One of the especially ugly moments during the 20/20 exposé was the image of Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director since 1997, acting put upon and contemptuous when confronted on camera and asked if the victims might have a public apology coming to them. In the face of bad publicity generated by the story, Wielgus later backtracked and expressed regret in an open letter to the swimming community. Susan Woessner, who once swam at Indiana University, was subsequently brought in to oversee publication on USA Swimming’s website of the names of coaches permanently banned for conduct code violations, as well as to set up a new program of education on boundaries and sex crimes.
Swimming’s post-20/20 changes are only slightly better than nothing, victims’ advocates maintain. There is a backlog of buried cases requiring “truth and reconciliation,” and the record of the entrenched leadership shows it ill-equipped to carry out such a program in good faith. Critics say a housecleaning is in order.
In the weeks leading up to the Trials, three swimming coaches with ties to USA Swimming were charged with criminal sex abuse, noteworthy in a sport where the historical ratio of reported-to-unreported sex abuse is high.
A week before the Sandusky verdict came the latest entry in swimming’s police blotter: On June 16, Noah Rucker, a 39-year-old coach at Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington, D.C., area, was arrested on three counts of illegal sexual contact with a swimmer he had coached more than a decade earlier at Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. The Curl-Burke club has produced four Olympic gold medalists in the past two decades. (The day after MomsTeam published this article, The Washington Post reported allegations that Cal-Burke founder Rick Curl had an inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage female swimmer in the 1980s.)
The other fresh cases involve a former swim club coach, Chris Johnson, who was arrested after allegedly soliciting sex with a 12-year-old student; and Kenneth Fuller, current high school head coach and assistant club coach in Malvern, Pennsylvania, who was arrested on multiple assault charges involving his contact with a student.
Johnson, a 35-year-old physical education student teacher at Oakland Middle School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was caught in a police sting last month. Detective Tommy Roberts said that computer and cell phone evidence suggests additional victims in addition to the 12-year-old. He also confirmed that USA Swimming safe sport director Woessner contacted him after news reports of the arrest. According to Tennessee sources, Johnson, an ex-college swimmer, was the head coach of two now-defunct teams in the area; one of them, the River Oak Swim Club, disbanded, with one source citing inappropriate sexual activity as the reason.
Fuller, the swim coach at Bayard Rustin High School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was booked on multiple assault charges after reportedly posing as a student’s father in notes excusing her school absences — after which he allegedly took her to a hotel for alcohol and sex. Fuller also had been an assistant coach for nine years with the USA Swimming club in Malvern.
“WHEN YOU COMPARE THE NUMBER OF PEDOPHILE COACHES and potential victims, USA Swimming presents a far greater societal problem than any other known organization,” said B. Robert Allard, a San Jose attorney who is part of a loose national network prosecuting these civil claims, and who also leads a group called Lawyers Against the Sex Abuse of Children.
The sex abuse problem already has cost Colorado-based USA Swimming millions, possibly tens of millions, of dollars in settlement payouts and legal fees, according to sources within the swimming community. At least six additional civil lawsuits have been filed in California, Indiana, and other states. Victims’ advocates predict more are on the way.
The sport may be called swimming, but with the huge dollar amounts, reputations of individuals, and images of the swim world at stake, the game played to head off potential and actual lawsuits is strictly hardball.
The sums of past settlements are impossible to pin down, since they were routinely conditioned on confidentiality. Attorney Allard (California Lawyer magazine’s 2011 lawyer of the year) is pushing for legislative reforms. With heightened awareness from the Penn State scandal, bills have been introduced and are making progress in several states, including Nebraska, site of the Olympic Trials.
In addition to lengthening statutes of limitations on sex crimes against children, and expanding mandatory reporting requirements, some versions call for outlawing sealed settlements in the interest of community safety. Confidentiality prevents publicizing the names of perpetrators. This not only facilitates their quiet moves from state to state and program to program; it also limits information for possible other victims, who might be motivated to come forward.
(The Post story on Rick Curl says that he paid the swimmer and her parents $150,000 to keep quiet as part of a settlement. Because the settlement terms remained confidential until obtained by The Post, and because no criminal charges were ever filed, Curl has continued coaching, pending an emergency disiplinary hearing by USA Swimming.)
Indiana swimmer Brooke Taflinger is attempting to hold the swim authority accountable for, among other reprehensible acts, her coach Brian Hindson’s Peeping Tom secret locker room video recordings. In a deposition in that case, USA Swimming’s Wielgus swore that the issue of coaches’ secret tapings of stripped-down athletes was “not even on the radar screen” until 2008.
The facts tell a different story. In 1998, the year after Wielgus became executive director, a collegiate and USA club coach in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, John Trites, went on the lam after being caught secretly videotaping his nude swimmers from a camera hidden inside a towel in a locker room. The ongoing Trites manhunt made the television program America’s Most Wanted, and USA Swimming, on the FBI’s instructions, issued a nationwide alert to affiliated aquatic facilities and programs. On the radar screen or not, Hinson is now serving a 33-year federal prison term on child pornography charges.
Dale Neuburger, a 22-year board member, was asked in a deposition last year in the Jancy Thompson case about Mitch Ivey — successor to the legendary George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club, who was fired by the University of Florida in 1993 just before ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired interviews alleging his serial predation of his underage female swimmers, one of them as young as 15. Neuburger said he could not recall any discussions about Ivey in 1993, and “If Mr. Ivey was part of a television broadcast, I’m not aware of it.”
When Berkoff — the International Swimming Hall of Famer who compiled the “flagged” list of coaches who have not been disciplined by USA Swimming — was venting by email with a swimming parent after the 20/20 broadcast in 2010, he remarked, “Wow. Perjury is still a crime in California, correct?” It is not known exactly who and what Berkoff was referring to.
When a swimmer or her family accuses a coach of molesting her, whether immediately or years after the fact, USA Swimming turns to Arizona-based Risk Management Services. According to its website, this “independently owned and operated company” focuses exclusively “on insurance programs for the swimming industry.” While various insurance companies hold the liability policies themselves, RMS, as a consultant, is a key architect of lawsuit settlements and their confidentiality clauses.
In 1988, the same year RMS began, USA Swimming set up a wholly owned subsidiary “reinsurance” company: United States Sports Insurance Company, Incorporated (USSIC). Many similar-sized entities, profit and nonprofit alike, leverage their risks with so-called “captive” reinsurers, which help their primary insurance policy issuers manage claims and absorb losses. (The Catholic Church’s captive is the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc.) USA Swimming’s public financial statement shows a USSIC paper loss of $2.2 million in 2011. Tax experts point out that since a nonprofit is not allowed to register positive income in excess of costs, the deficits of the reinsurance subsidiary can be used to offset the parent company’s revenues from such mission-unspecific sources as merchandise and broadcast rights.
USSIC is domiciled in Barbados. Jay Adkisson, a Southern California attorney who is an expert on captive reinsurance, told me, “Offshore jurisdictions inevitably have the lingering odor of offshore tax evasion and sleaze.”
In 2007, a jury in state court in Missouri awarded an abuse victim $5 million in a case against the Jackson County Park & Recreation District. Though USA Swimming was not a party in that case, the county was insured by the Lexington Insurance Company, which victims’ attorneys say is a major provider of USA Swimming’s own liability policies in this area. Lexington Insurance delayed in paying its share of the jury award and the plaintiff’s legal fees, until the court late last year issued a garnishment against the company. The court adopted a special master’s findings that Lexington Insurance had engaged in tactics which were “disingenuous in the extreme” and based on “arguments that no competent counsel could justify.”
According to attorney Allard, California courts have also imposed sanctions directly against USA Swimming totaling approximately $25,000 for repeated violations of court orders to produce discovery documents. However, no individual within the organization has been held personally responsible. “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,” Allard said.
EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NUMBER of new criminal and civil cases is the question of whether the reforms USA Swimming takes credit for having instituted after the 20/20 report are having any effect. Perhaps most troubling of all is evidence that a culture of denial still persists at the highest levels of the sport.
“The leadership at swimming does not want to do a damn thing about it because they don’t want to disrupt the world’s greatest gravy train,” charged Jonathan Little, an attorney in Indianapolis who represents victims. Little was referring to the huge salaries drawn by Wielgus, the $750,000-a-year chief executive, and other top USA Swimming officials, who run the $20-million-a-year organization.
Commenting on the number of abuse cases in a 2010 deposition in the Brooke Taflinger lawsuit, Wielgus claimed, “We’re not talking about an enormous volume.” (The ABC investigation, however, aired audio of a 2009 speech Wielgus gave to a coaches’ group in which he said that one of his “greatest fears is someone is going to start linking all of this together.”) In cases where there was criminal activity, Wielgus added, “our counsel has always been to urge the victim … to go to the proper authorities.”
A Wielgus defender on the USA Swimming board reiterated that the organization still operates from the premise that formal complaints (not necessarily by an alleged victim) must be submitted to its national review panel in order to get an audience in Colorado Springs. There is no systematic investigative process, even after multiple informal complaints about a particular coach. “We’re not the police,” the board member said.
But, as is the case with sex abuse in general, victims of sex abuse in swimming are reluctant to come forward.
“Why does no one say anything? Because no one else does,” said one victim of Andy King, a long-time coach who pleaded no contest in 2010 to 20 counts of child molestation and is now serving a 40-year sentence in a California prison. King coached mostly in various parts of California, but briefly managed to avoid detection by taking a coaching position in Washington State, where abuse charges against him are the focus of yet another new civil suit. It is striking that King’s USA Swimming background check came back clean when he returned to California. The victim (who is not the plaintiff in the new lawsuit) remarked in a long and detailed letter years after her own experience, “I said nothing [at the time] because I did not want to upset my teammates. Imagine the scandal!”
Because no victim spoke up sooner, King’s sex abuse continued for years, despite court records suggesting that it began as far back as 1979, and included impregnating at least one girl as young as 14, and engaging in “almost every conceivable sex act,” according to the Santa Clara County prosecutor, who called him “a monster.”
Victims’ attorney Little suggests that sex abuse by coaches is ingrained in the very culture of USA Swimming: “Young boys swim for coaches who are having sex with their female swimmers. And when they grow up they become USA Swimming coaches and have sex with the teenage female swimmers they coach. And everyone just accepts it because that is the way it has always been. That in a nutshell is what we are dealing with.”
WHEN NEWS OF NOAH RUCKER’S ARREST broke on the eve of the Trials, USA Swimming announced an “emergency hearing process” by an internal national review board to determine if there was a conduct code violation and, if so, the appropriate penalty. While making the announcement, USA Swimming failed to provide any details of that process, effectively preempting further discussion in the run-up to the Trials.
On the pool deck during warm-ups on the second evening at the Trials, an hour before Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte went mano à mano in the men’s 200-meter freestyle finals, USA Swimming’s public relations director, Karen Linhart, refused a request for an update on the status of the emergency hearing on the Rucker case.
“We’re here for a competition, not to talk about that,” Linhart said, before threatening to have security eject this reporter from CenturyLink Center.
Linhart had earlier declined an email request to interview Wielgus and Woessner, all apparently in keeping with the lockdown atmosphere in Omaha, where every moment was booked for autograph sessions and a trade show in a convention hall filled with sponsors’ exhibits. Wielgus and his staff had ignored repeated requests for information and comment for the past four months.
No athlete, coach, or official among the dozens approached both before and at the Trials, including some who acknowledge the existence of the sex abuse cloud hanging over USA Swimming, was willing to talk. Even a coach who has been publicly outspoken about her abuse by a school teacher declined to comment. “Maybe later in the summer,” she said.
Jeff Renwick, a Colorado parent who began investigating USA Swimming’s procedures after his own family’s run-in with their local club, characterized the emergency hearing process for Rucker as “nothing but a P.R. move.” According to Renwick, an assistant coach on the Renwick kids’ team maintained a MySpace page replete with vile sexual language and images. When Renwick, a decorated naval aviator, and his wife, a West Point alum who swam in the 1995 World Military Games, complained, their kids were kicked off the team and threatened with a boycott if they swam in meets for their new team. Renwick met with safe sport director Woessner, who declined to take any action. In an email, Wielgus, advised Renwick to “do nothing and focus on developing a positive relationship with your children’s current team.”
In December 2010, former Olympic coach Sean Hutchison resigned from California’s Fullerton Aquatic Sports Team (FAST), one of the Olympic Committee’s three professional and post-graduate training centers, and home of many of the country’s top female swimmers. Amy Shipley of The Washington Post reported that a club official confronted Hutchison about rumors he had a sexual relationship with one of his swimmers in violation of USA Swimming’s conduct code. In February 2011, Wielgus issued a statement that USA Swimming had investigated and cleared Hutchison.
“While it is not our policy to investigate in the absence of a formal complaint, we acted in the best interest of our athletes, coaches, and organization to conduct a full investigation into this situation,” Wielgus said, adding that a private investigator found “no evidence to substantiate the existence of an inappropriate sexual or romantic relationship between coach Hutchison and the athlete.” Significantly, however, Wielgus did not release the report itself.
Hutchison returned to Seattle, where he is director of King Aquatic Club and owner of IKKOS, a technology start-up. In an email to me, Hutchison claimed not only that the investigation had exonerated him but also that it had nothing to do with his resignation: “My focus continues to be helping people do things they didn’t think they could do. In my business, we use technology that employs pending patents in neuroplasticity, to improve the recovery for stroke patients and to train elite athletes learning technique, including those at King Aquatic.”
DAVID BERKOFF, THE USA SWIMMING BOARD’S technical vice president, has been an important player in the history of the organization’s tackling of the issue of alleged sex abuse by coaches. But his view has seemingly shifted away from being an advocate for victims in the 1990s towards defending the organization today.
When he was an athlete representative on the board during the tenure of Wielgus’ predecessor, Ray Essick, Berkoff was instrumental in forming a subcommittee on abuse policies. In 2002, his highly regarded coach, Richard Shoulberg, co-chaired a USA Swimming task force on sexual misconduct and pushed for passage of a “zero tolerance policy.” Shoulberg said his goal was to provide “as much information as possible to all members of U.S. Swimming to protect first themselves and second the organization.”
In 2006, USA Swimming began criminal background checks of newly hired coaches. But four years later, reflecting on what he considered the failure to achieve true zero tolerance, Shoulberg wrote in an internal memo, “. . . I would hate to see our organization ever in the predicament of the current Roman Catholic Church — protecting child molesters!”
Berkoff himself had left the board in 1997. A Harvard graduate who invented the underwater backstroke start known as the “Berkoff Blastoff,” which helped him win gold medals on two Olympic medley relay teams, Berkoff became a lawyer and moved to Missoula, Montana.
Discovery in the Thompson and other lawsuits shows Berkoff, in the immediate aftermath of the 20/20 report, making explosive comments in email exchanges with Jeff Chida, a parent in Minnesota with complaints about a coach, and Mike Saltzstein, a dissident USA Swimming vice president.
On July 26, 2010, Berkoff wrote to Chida:
“Denying knowledge of [REDACTED] and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie. The 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 in 1988. I heard the whole [REDACTED] story from Pablo Morales over a handful of beers and nearly threw up. I was told [REDACTED] was molesting [REDACTED] for years starting when she was 12 by some of the Texas guys. That was the entire reason I started the abuse subcommittee. I was sick and tired of this crap! No one was willing to take on these perverts.”
In an email to me in April 2012, fellow International Swimming Hall of Famer Morales, now head coach at the University of Nebraska, denied ever having had such a conversation with Berkoff or anyone else. Berkoff, though, offered compelling details to back up his allegations: the name of the Mexican restaurant where he and Morales had dined together in Orlando in 1988 during an international meet, plus the fact that they were joined by British swimmer Adrian Moorhouse (who when contacted said he couldn’t recall the conversation).
During the same period he was corresponding with Chida, Berkoff also discussed with Saltzstein the list Berkoff had personally compiled of coaches around the world alleged in published reports to be abusers. As he explained in an email to Saltzstein, Berkoff later sent the list to the Montana Swimming Board of Directors “when it became clear to me that USA Swimming was getting into lawyer up’ mode rather than do something,” Berkoff also said in an email, “There is no way I can support Chuck Wielgus being in charge of the decision to investigate a charge of abuse or not. That decision must be made by an independent entity.”
Yet just weeks later in September 2010, Berkoff rejoined the USA Swimming board, at which point his tune changed. In his single conversation with this reporter before he, too, stopped returning calls, Berkoff resolutely defended Wielgus’s leadership. In deposition testimony in the lawsuit by Thompson (who claims she was molested for years by her coach, Norm Havercroft, and that USA Swimming was responsible for supervising him), Berkoff’s only criticism of Wielgus was that he had naively allowed 20/20 to “ambush” him.
Discovery in other lawsuits characterizes the Berkoff list as a formerly confidential compilation of “flagged” coaches who are not on the USA Swimming-posted banned list, either because they were not affiliated with the organization itself, or because they have not been charged criminally or had not had their cases heard by the administrative review board. About his list, Berkoff testified that, after forwarding the list to safe sport director Woessner, he did not follow up to attempt to find out what, if anything, she did with it.
To be sure, USA Swimming is in a tricky position: If it becomes party to disseminating unverified rumors, it exposes itself to being sued for defamation and libel. But critics of the Wielgus administration do not believe that this limitation excuses doing nothing at all to investigate allegations before criminal or administrative charges are filed. A common analogy critics make is to a principal of a school, who is expected to proactively investigate expressions of concerns of sexual misconduct that come across his desk, even if law enforcement has not yet been notified. In fact, educators are statutory “mandatory reporters” who must notify law enforcement whenever there is credible reason to suspect abuse.
The official USA Swimming banned list has grown from an original 40-plus after 20/20 to a current 64. These do not include pending investigations, such as the three cases mentioned earlier involving Rucker, Johnson, and Fuller.
SWIMMING’S NATIONAL GOVERNING BODY WAS ESTABLISHED by the U.S. Olympic Committee through the Amateur Sports Act of 1979. But in practice, its public mission of universal youth athletic enrichment, along with basic responsibility for the safety and protection of fit kids in tight spandex, is in question.
Many of the allegations of sex abuse involve coaches who were not in USA Swimming programs, per se, but in high school or rec clubs. But large numbers of coaches and swimmers cross over to USA Swimming during different seasons or years, and the national governing body is publicly perceived to have supervisory capacity over all organized forms of the sport.
Victims’ advocates believe the organization should have, along with that status, the tools and authority to disseminate information across the board. For example, Congress could compel national sports governing bodies to become clearinghouses of sex abuse allegations, whether or not the cases were adjudicated criminally or within their own administrations; in return, the bodies would have immunity from certain categories of defamation claims.
For now, the public isn’t clamoring for such reforms, in part because the media’s sporadic coverage of swimming events such as the Trials focuses on patriotism, corporate boosterism, and the popular spectacle of the Olympics. Mike Reilly, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, saw no problem with his newspaper’s extensive Trials coverage without a single story on the sex abuse issue.
“We ran stuff on USA Swimming’s problems years ago,” Reilly said in an email. “We found no local issues when we checked at the time…. I don’t see a newsworthy reason to rehash the previous problems just because a big meet is coming to our town.”
The fallout from the Penn State continues, with new developments every day. The university has removed the statue of late coach Joe Paterno from the front of Beaver Stadium, following a damning report by former FBI director Louis Freeh finding that Paterno colluded with top university officials in failing to act on information about Sandusky’s abuses going back to 1998.
Meanwhile, in the swimming “company town” that is Omaha, hosting its second straight Trials, a 12-by-25-foot sculpture of the head and shoulders of a generic Olympic swimmer in full-splendored red, white, and blue peers out over Dodge and 34th Streets from the lawn in front of the headquarters of Mutual of Omaha, one of USA Swimming’s major sponsors.
The Sandusky and swimming scandals are not identical, of course. The Penn State assistant football coach and supposed champion of at-risk kids preyed on boys from broken homes. The swim coaches who abuse athletes tend to use the glamour of their sport to gain access to their charges’ lissome bodies, if not their fragile souls. The convicted sex offenders among the swim coach fraternity are almost all male; the known victims, almost all female and middle class.
But the same leadership that has presided over the sex abuse crisis that has given USA Swimming such a black eye remains in place – in contrast with the university officials who have been fired or resigned in disgrace in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
Mutual of Omaha — sponsor of the star-spangled swimmer sculpture, 300 pounds of steel, 750 pounds of plastic foam — was asked whether it was aware of the depth of swimming sex abuse prior to 2010; whether USA Swimming informed the company about it; and whether it discussed internally the impact of the problem on its image or vision of corporate responsibility. The same questions were posed to the other nine major sponsors. All but one either ignored requests to comment or declined to issue any statement.
The sole exception was Valeant Pharmaceutics International, Inc., owner of the CereVe skin moisturizer brand. “Valeant became a sponsor of USA Swimming because we believe in these young athletes and support their hard work ethic, their dedication to the sport and their determination to achieve their goals,” said Laura W. Little, vice president for investor relations. “We hope that our sponsorship helps to provide them with the opportunity to compete.”
The sponsors made possible swimming’s pageantry in Omaha, with more to surely follow in London. But beneath the surface of the water plied with such grace and speed by the likes of Phelps, Lochte, and Franklin, a shameful saga of sex abuse continues to lap efforts to end and account for it. Penn State’s football program was answerable to NCAA. USA Swimming seems answerable to no one. It is up to parents, as well as citizens at large, to change that.