Two more gold-medal winning Olympic gymnasts have come forward to claim they were sexually abused by convicted pedophile Larry Nassar.
USA TODAY Sports
USA Gymnastics is hosting its national championships this weekend, but how can we focus on the competition when survivors of a sexual predator masquerading as a team doctor are still coming forward?
How can we enjoy the memories of watching competitors such as the Fierce Five, who won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, knowing that each member of that group has stepped up to tell the world that Larry Nassar assaulted them?
And how can we be sure that such abuses won’t happen in the future?
We can’t. Not blindly, anyway. The only way to start is to recognize the courage and resilience of young women who wouldn’t stop speaking up until they forced change, even if it took years, and to push USA Gymnastics and its new oversight organization, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, to help further a new culture of transparency that will protect the innocent — including those who may face false accusations.
Let’s pause before we go too far down this path.
False accusations of sexual assault aren’t common, between two and 10 percent of claims, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
And, similar to government agencies that investigate allegations of child abuse, if there is an investigative error, it should be on the side of protecting potential victims, rather than potential abusers.
In Nassar’s case, if more people had been more transparent with what they knew, when they knew it, he could have been prosecuted sooner.
Nassar pleaded guilty in January to criminal sexual conduct and has been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. He’s been accused by hundreds of young women and has been held in a maximum-security facility in Tucson.
(Former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny was told in June of 2015 not to interfere with an FBI investigation and didn’t contact Michigan State University, Nassar’s employer at the time. USA Gymnastics cut ties with Nassar, but it wasn’t until a newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, which is owned by the same parent company as The Republic, got involved more than a year later that Nassar was fired.)
In response, USA Gymnastics has had a leadership shakeup that includes a new president and board of directors, and it’s now under the umbrella of SafeSport, an independent bodythat investigates and determines the outcome of claims of sex abuse and misconduct.
But when allegations are made, very little is revealed. This needs to change. It could improve the credibility of the process.
Consider a recent Arizona case.
Gym owner Dan Witenstein was suspended in July pending a hearing. Neither USA Gymnastics nor SafeSport made any details public.
A Witenstein spokeswoman said at the time, “We are aware of the allegation dating back to 1986 upon which SafeSport has imposed an interim sanction without any notice or hearing. We are not authorized to speak about this, as it is an ongoing investigation.”
Weeks later, the suspension had been lifted.
Witenstein said in a statement at the time that he was “gratified with the decision.” He didn’t respond to a message Friday seeking further comment.
What if either or both organizations had said what the allegations were, provided a sense of who was bringing the charges, whether there was any substantiating evidence — such as witness statements or video tape — a hearing date, and whether Witenstein had mounted or indicated that he planned to mount a defense? What if he had been allowed to say more for himself?
Such basic details would maintain the integrity of the investigation and help the public contextualize the nature of the proceedings and allegations against the accused.
It would also help guard against a buildup of public doubt that would undercut reform, which USA Gymnastics can’t afford in the wake of the Nassar scandal.
Another pending case in Arizona involves gymnast Alex Naddour. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist was suspended months ago, but details aren’t available.
SafeSport’s website says “sexual misconduct – involving a minor” and nothing more, not even a hearing date.
From a verified Twitter account, Alex Naddour said in June, “I have no idea what is happening or why, we are trying to contact safe sport for any information.”
Naddour’s father, Mike Naddour, has told The Republicthat his son was suspended without being contacted by SafeSport. He declined further comment Friday.
The public is left to wait and wonder.
A spokeswoman with SafeSport explained the organization’s mission, work and processes in a lengthy recent phone conversation.
USA Gymnastics President and CEO Kerry Perry said in a message to “members of USA Gymnsatics and the gymnastics community” that the organization “has and will continue to go through many changes that reflect our commitment to athlete safety. Some of those changes include reviewing and modifying our bylaws, policies and procedures.”
Here’s urging USA Gymnastics and SafeSport to move toward transparency.
It’s the best way to build confidence and protect the innocent, regardless of whom that is.
Reach Moore at [email protected] or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @WritingMoore.