A Georgia judge released today thousands of pages of administrative files showing how USA Gymnastics handled reports of sexual abuse by coaches, with some not banned “until years after they were convicted of crimes against children,” according to the Indianapolis Star. The files were released due to a request by the Star, and in response USA Gymnastics fought to keep them sealed for months. The files, as described by the Star, show how at one point even a regional chairman lobbied on behalf of letting a convicted sex offender keep his membership.
The Star, which has spearheaded the investigation into sex abuse in women’s gymnastics, first got its legal victory back in August to gain access to court files that included the documents. The judge ruled in the paper’s favor, arguing that the release of these files, with care taken to redact certain information, was in the public interest. But then the decision had to go through appeals, which the Star won.
“All of this is of public interest,” Effingham County Judge Ronald Thompson said back in August. “The court doesn’t disagree with that.”
At the time, Michael Athans, attorney for USA Gymnastics alleged that the journalists were conducting “a witch hunt.” The Star reported that documents released today showed organization president Steve Penny using a similar concern about witch hunts to explain their way of handling investigations.
The documents show that the Indianapolis-based national governing body long employed a policy of requiring sexual misconduct complaints to be signed by a victim, victim’s parent or eyewitness to the alleged abuse. President Steve Penny testified that the organization has to move carefully on complaints “because the coach is as much a member as the athlete” and the possibility of a witch hunt is “very real.”
“Witch hunts” came up again in the document when discussing coaches being investigated—one coach called the case against him exactly that, the Star reports. The coach later was convicted of molesting gymnasts. Parents were part of the files too, with some including letters from them “pleading for coaches to retain their membership,” according to the Star.
Some of these files are heavily redacted. The Star reports that “in at least one case, 175 consecutive pages were blacked out.” The judge’s original ruling stipulated that just the names of coaches who haven’t been convicted can be redacted but, according to the Star, it appears that at least two of coaches with convictions had their names redacted as well.
Perhaps the most disturbing incident in the files was the account of an unnamed USA Gymnastics regional chairman writing to then-president Bob Colarossi on behalf of a coach who already was a convicted sex offender. The regional chairman asked that despite the conviction this coach be able to keep his professional membership. The coach was eventually banned, per the Star, although it doesn’t say how long it took to ban him.
The released files also show the organization’s approach to handling allegations of sexual abuse—first try to investigate the charge itself before turning it over to the police. In one case, the organization decided after a lengthy investigation to put a suspected coach “on probation.” During this time, he continued to coach and molest young gymnasts. He eventually was convicted and banned by USA Gymnastics.
USA Gymnastics took a similar approach—keep the investigation internal— back in 2015, when it got the first report of possible sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar. USA Gymnastics internally investigated for five weeks before turning over what it found directly to the FBI. More then 80 women have since come forward saying they were sexually assaulted by Nassar.
The release of these files comes on the eve of the American Cup, the most important international event hosted by USA Gymnastics. This year’s competition will be held in Newark, N.J., where the media focus likely will be on the organization’s failure to protect gymnasts from sexually abusive coaches than the performance of the athletes out on the floor.
USA Gymnastics released a statement saying that it believed “one instance of child abuse is one too many.”