Sexual predators left off list of banned USA Gymnastics coaches
USA Gymnastics touts a list of coaches it has banned as a key safeguard to warn gym owners and parents about dangers, including sexual predators.
And to protect young gymnasts.
But an IndyStar investigation has uncovered one example after another of coaches who were not only suspected of abuse, but actually convicted of molesting children, yet they did not show up on the banned coaches list for years — even decades — after that conviction.
Vincent Pozzuoli was one of those coaches.
Pozzuoli, who coached in Connecticut, was arrested in 1994 and later convicted of battery for groping an 11-year-old boy at a gymnastics camp in Maine. But he kept on coaching. In 2011, he was convicted again of groping another young gymnast.
This time, Pozzuoli was finally added to a list — Connecticut’s sex offender registry.
He would not, however, be added to USA Gymnastics’ banned coaches list until earlier this year — or 20 years after his first conviction.
Jon Little, an Indianapolis-based attorney who has represented survivors of sexual abuse in lawsuits against a number of sports national governing bodies, said USA Gymnastics' banned list is "abysmal."
“It provides no useful information to parents," he said, "and should not be relied upon on deciding whether or not a coach is safe, because it doesn’t tell you why the people are banned, principally."
In a "Safe Sport timeline" published by the organization, USA Gymnastics touts being the first national governing body in Olympic sports to implement a list of coaches and others permanently ineligible for membership.
Leslie King, vice president of communications for USA Gymnastics, said the banned list was started in 1990 and “has proven effective on a global level.”
She said the organization typically waits until criminal cases run their course before banning a coach. She did acknowledge, however, that “there have been times when it took longer than expected or desired to resolve matters.”
The shortcomings with USA Gymnastics' banned list represent just one of several gaps IndyStar found in the national governing body’s efforts to protect gymnasts, many of whom are children. Others include:
USA Gymnastics requires criminal background checks only on "professional" and "instructor" members — mainly coaches at competitive and non-competitive levels — instead of all personnel at member gyms.
It does not publicize when a coach’s membership is suspended due to an investigation into sexual improprieties.
In addition, USA Gymnastics has failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches.
That last gap was revealed in an IndyStar investigation published Thursday that found USA Gymnastics has adhered to a policy of dismissing an abuse claim unless it came from a victim or the victim's parent. IndyStar found multiple examples where the organization was tipped off about a coach's disturbing behavior, did not report it to authorities and the coach went on to molest young gymnasts.
The investigation also revealed the existence of secret complaint files kept by USA Gymnastics that contain allegations against more than 50 coaches.
In addition to the Pozzuoli case, IndyStar found 18 other cases in which coaches were not added to the banned list printed in its two publications until more than a year after their criminal convictions. Five of those people’s names didn’t appear until more than a decade later.
USA Gymnastics implemented an expedited process in 2007, King said, for adding people to the banned list that has “helped this situation immensely.”
Still, IndyStar found recent examples of the problem:
Virginia-based coach Christopher Ford pleaded guilty on Oct. 22, 2010, to the assault and battery of a 12-year-old male gymnast, according to Fairfax County Police Department spokeswoman Tawny Wright. But he was not placed on the banned list until earlier this year.
Maryland-based coach Neil Frederick was convicted in 2002 of what’s listed on the state’s sex offender registry as a “third degree sex offense.” He was accused of fondling five girls, ages 9-10, at an elementary school where he was a physical education teacher. But Frederick didn’t appear on the banned coaches list until this year.
107 on banned list
Being on the banned list isn’t an absolute prohibition from coaching. It only prevents coaches from holding a professional membership through USA Gymnastics and from coaching at its sanctioned events.
But membership is a big deal.
As the sport’s national governing body, USA Gymnastics sets the policies and rules for gymnastics from the highest levels to local gyms — a sweeping reach that takes in more than 121,000 members. The Indianapolis-based organization also controls the path to Olympic competition for thousands of young athletes, including gymnasts hoping to earn college scholarships or emulate their Team USA heroes.
Currently, there are 107 people on the list of banned members, nearly all of whom are coaches accused or convicted of sexual misconduct. Some, such as former Olympic team coach Don Peters, are well-known in the gymnastics community. Others coached at the local level.
People are added to the banned list when “a member's conduct is determined to be inconsistent with the best interest of the sport of gymnastics and of the athletes we are servicing,” according to the organization’s website.
Gym owners said they check the list when hiring coaches, and parents can use it to assure their children are safe.
Jan Giunipero, a Florida-based former gym owner, told IndyStar she hired a coach believing his USA Gymnastics membership — and the fact he wasn’t on the banned list — meant “he was a safe choice in all aspects.” And a Georgia mother, Lisa Ganser, told IndyStar she believed her daughter was in good hands because the girl’s coach was a USA Gymnastics member in good standing.
They both were wrong.
Ganser said she felt betrayed when she learned that USA Gymnastics had received at least four warnings about that coach, William “Bill” McCabe, before he secretly took pictures of her daughter changing clothes and posted those naked pictures of the preteen on the internet.
McCabe’s name wasn’t placed on the list until after he pleaded guilty to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements.
Partial background checks unsafe?
USA Gymnastics also faces some criticism over its policy on background checks.
Since 2007, USA Gymnastics has required national- and county-level checks in all the places where an applicant has lived for the previous seven years. Some checks can go back further, said King, the USA Gymnastics spokeswoman. The criminal checks are required as a condition of membership, and are conducted every two years.
The policy, however, doesn’t cover all employees at the more than 3,000 gyms that also are USA Gymnastics members.
A separate organization, the U.S. Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs, requires background checks for all employees of a gym — even the owner. Anything less than that, the group's website says, is "an unsafe practice" and fails to "meet the standards of care pertaining to child safety."
"For me, as a father and grandfather, I'm paranoid about these things," Paul Spadaro, president of the New York-based organization, told IndyStar.
And, he added, "My attorneys felt it's the stupidest thing in the world to check half of your employees. You're open to litigation about the other half."
Club owners in the association resisted the policy at first because of the expense of added background checks.
"I told them, 'Look what you get back,' " Spadaro said. "What are you telling parents? That you care about the kids."
When IndyStar asked USA Gymnastics why it doesn't similarly require background checks of all gym personnel, King said the organization “cannot oversee the private business practices of the clubs other than through their relationship to the organization.”
'You've shifted everyone off center'
Various awareness programs make up the other main thrust of USA Gymnastics' efforts to fight abuse.
In 2005, the organization began presenting sexual misconduct awareness sessions at its annual regional and national conferences.
USA Gymnastics took another step four years later by creating a participant welfare policy, which defines sexual abuse and includes recommendations for local gymnastics clubs to set policies to lessen the likelihood of abuse. It also provides guidance on reporting sexual abuse allegations, noting that anyone may notify USA Gymnastics about abuse involving a member.
And in 2012, the organization also launched a Clubs Care awareness campaign. One component of that campaign is encouraging gyms to immediately report abuse allegations to law enforcement.
Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and founder and president of Safe4Athletes, said USA Gymnastics' efforts fall short of what’s truly needed to protect children. She said generic education about abuse isn’t enough.
“They've manipulated and groomed the gymnastics community into a false sense of security,” she said.
When asked to comment on Safe4Athletes' concerns, USA Gymnastics said it was not able to comment at this time due to the hectic nature of preparing for the Rio Olympics.
It’s imperative, Starr said, that education and policy focus on the unique dynamic between a coach and a young athlete. She noted that the featured video on USA Gymnastics’ Clubs Care website is of Margaret Hoelzer, an Olympic swimmer who was abused by her friend’s father, not a coach.
“Coaches and athletes spend an inordinate amount of time together in an activity that can be intense and emotional,” according to Safe4Athletes’ guidelines for preventing abuse. “There is always the danger that the relationship between a coach and an athlete may cross the line from mentor-mentee to one that is based on total control, dependence and/or romance.”
Little, the Indianapolis-based attorney, said that while USA Gymnastics' policies don't meet best practices, they are better than those of many other national governing bodies.
"It's horrible," he said, "but it's not the worst."
USA Fencing, Little noted, does not have a banned list.
Alison Young of USA Today contributed to this story.
Contact IndyStar reporter Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311 and follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.
Contact IndyStar reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204 and follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.
Call IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.