Tim Joyce Guest Column: The Search for the Truth About Sex Abuse at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club … And the Search for Michael Phelps

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Editor’s note: This guest column is by the only other professional journalist in the country who is doing sustained reporting on the USA Swimming sex abuse scandal. In fact, Tim Joyce’s work on this subject predates my own. See his collected articles at http://timothyjoyce.wordpress.com.

by Tim Joyce

Two months ago, WBAL pulled an Orwellian stunt and removed all my articles relating to the sordid mess that is the USA Swimming sex abuse scandals, displaying a stunning cowardice and an embarrassing abandonment of journalistic integrity along the way.

But this appears to be part of a larger pattern in the Baltimore area. After all, the shabby journalistic standards extend to the Baltimore Sun, another supposedly upstanding, ancient media outlet. Immediately after my article on past abuse at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a Sun reporter – actually two separate reporters – had the gall to immediately ask me for the victim’s identity.

This reminded me of that line from All the President’s Men – “That’s a question straight out of Wichita, Kansas” … although I think that is an unfair insult to Wichita.

Baltimore is an even smaller town, apparently, that I originally thought, and the influence of one famous athlete, Mr. Michael Phelps, seems to hold a great deal of sway. Does one need more evidence other than the fact that the Sun has an entire section of their online site devoted to Michael Phelps, where the paper scrolls about such things as Phelps popping into a poker championship in Montreal?

But question Phelps as to what he thinks of the Hall of Fame coach – a man who is believed to have taught Phelps’ own sisters in the pool – being let go after decades at NBAC because of sexual abuse charges? Whoa, that’s far too invasive a query for King Michael. And the monarchy that is in place at NBAC – Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman – must be protected at all times. Heck, even the lawyer for the club, Steve Allen, told me when I queried him about the abuse at NBAC, “Michael knew nothing about this, don’t involve Michael.”

Really? While it’s likely true that Phelps isn’t notified of the day-to-day minutia of operating a club, one would think that the damning charge of sexual abuse at the most famous swimming establishment in the world would merit informing Mr. Phelps of such.

So the questions beg: was Michael Phelps ever told the reason why this coach was no longer instructing? And if so, why hasn’t he addressed the issue publicly?

I was able to reach Michael Phelps’ mother, Debbie Phelps. Upon hearing what I said about the former coach – again, this coach worked with her daughters – Ms. Phelps had a “no comment” and immediately hung up the phone.

But let’s not do the forest-trees thing here. There’s nothing USA Swimming would love more than to lay all responsibility in this particular case with NBAC; make no mistake, this instance of abuse that I wrote about concerning NBAC – and indeed am still researching and will be writing more about – is just another indication of the dangerous institutional arrogance on constant display in Colorado Springs. USA Swimming has yet again not followed through and conducted anything approaching a thorough investigation. And, remarkably, the victim in question has still not been contacted by USA Swimming.

When I first broke this story more than two months ago, USA Swimming went into their default defensive mode whenever the Olympic governing body is faced with sexual abuse allegations: 1) make up some ridiculous excuse as to how they did in fact do the right thing and then 2) recite the boilerplate sentences about how things are so much better now.

To the first point, this is what was sent out in an email immediately following my article. It’s from Jamie Olsen, USA Swimming’s PR person: “There is not a current investigation involving any coach from NBAC. There was previously a complaint filed regarding an incident alleged to have occurred in 1975, back when swimming was governed by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Because USA Swimming (and therefore its Code of Conduct) was not in existence in 1975, the organization legally had no recourse in the matter. However, due to USA Swimming’s commitment to Safe Sport and the safety of our swimmers, we reported the complaint and information received to the Baltimore County Police Department, Precinct 1.”

Upon first reading this I thought I was mistaken by the content. After all, I said to myself, USA Swimming can’t be so cold and callous as to make such a claim. But surely they did. This is their dangerous reasoning: because an incident of abuse occurred while the national swimming association was under the AAU, USA Swimming had no responsibility. I guess it didn’t matter that the abuser continued to coach the victim in question for years after USA Swimming was formed in 1978 (by an Act of Congress, the Amateur Sports Act).

In regards to USA Swimming’s failure to communicate with the victim, Karen Linhart, another spokesperson for USA Swimming, had this to say in a Baltimore Sun article: “despite not having the coach’s name, USA Swimming attempted to initiate an investigation into the conduct described by the unidentified woman. However, our investigator made multiple attempts to contact her which proved unsuccessful over a period of three months.”

What Linhart is referring to is the initial anonymous complaint that the victim phoned in to USA Swimming in the summer of 2010. Upon learning of Linhart’s response, the victim sent me a detailed and pointed email that refutes the assertion that USA Swimming did their best to reach her:

“I am angry that USA Swimming is trying to cover up its role in this latest molestation chapter by stating that they had third party investigators trying to reach me for three months as a result of my call. This seems highly unlikely as I called from my cell phone and never received a call from them. I still have the same cell phone number. If they somehow did know my name from that initial call, I have had the same home number for 13 years. But even more egregious is the fact that after I made the formal complaint to the club in October of 2011, John Cadigan (director of operations at NBAC) assured me that USA Swimming would be contacted. I have never heard from USA Swimming.”

The victim was also told that Bob Bowman, NBAC’s CEO, who is now working for TSE Consulting, would contact her. He never did.

Furthermore, if reports of a letter from USA Swimming sent in 2010 to a very specific precinct in the Baltimore area are accurate, USA Swimming likely knew the victim’s name and where she lived.

Additionally, the victim is angry that the coach has been feted and paraded in front of throngs during club celebrations, such as at the Countdown to Gold held shortly before the Olympics last May.

Even more disturbing, the victim told me, is that to this date there has still not be a thorough investigation by either NBAC or USA Swimming into the abuse that took place at NBAC. And to her knowledge there are other girls who were abused by this same coach.

It bears remembering what Steve Allen, the lawyer for the club, told me back in October – “we do not comment about past or present employees and coaches. Period.” Imagine being a parent of one of the thousands of girls who swam at NBAC over the past 35 years and hearing this? I bet they’d want to hear comments.

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