Ottawa·CBC Investigates

Gymnastics Canada 'complicit' for keeping 2018 investigation results confidential, advocate says

Gymnastics Canada failed its athletes by not publicizing the results of an internal investigation into the organization's handling of misconduct allegations, former gymnasts and coaches say.

Investigation heard of 'pattern of inaction' by leadership in response to misconduct complaints

After gymnastics coach Scott McFarlane was charged in 2018, an internal investigation was launched into Gymnastics Canada leadership. (CBC)

WARNING: This article contains details of abuse.


Gymnastics Canada failed its athletes by not publicizing the results of an internal investigation into the organization's handling of misconduct allegations, former gymnasts and coaches say.

Several individuals who participated in the internal investigation told CBC News a more than 1,200-page report was produced by Toronto law firm Shearer Parnega, which detailed a "pattern of inaction" by Gymnastics Canada leadership in response to allegations of coaches' inappropriate behaviour.

The investigation, which took place through early 2018 and did not involve police, also heard some coaches had a "fear of retaliation" if they reported allegations of misconduct about their colleagues.

The current chair of Gymnastics Canada, Jeff Thomson, said findings from the report were "dealt with" by the board at the time and no issues have arisen since the results were released.

But critics disagree. 

Rob Koehler, who's with the international athlete-led movement Global Athlete, says athletes remain unprotected when sport organizations keep investigations confidential. (CBC)

By keeping the report secret, Gymnastics Canada is "complicit in the abuse that's happening in Canadian sport," said Rob Koehler, the Montreal-based director of Global Athlete, an advocacy group dedicated to addressing the imbalance of power between athletes and administrators.

"Sport cannot be tasked to self-regulate," said Koehler. "It's a small community where everyone is interconnected and no one wants to call out a friend or colleague for wrongdoing."

More than 500 athletes have signed an open letter to federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge, demanding an independent third-party investigation into the "toxic culture" of gymnastics and Gymnastics Canada — one of the country's largest national sport organizations with more than 310,000 registered athletes.

Sources who participated in the 2018 internal investigation say it heard then-CEO Peter Nicol and Karl Balisch — who ran the national artistic gymnastics program for several years — failed to act on several misconduct complaints dating back to 2012.

The investigative report was so confidential, even those who participated have never seen a copy. CBC has agreed not to name the sources due to their concerns over potential retribution. 

Balisch resigned from Gymnastics Canada in 2018 — soon after the internal report was completed — and sources say Nicol was urged to resign after the investigation.

The reasons for their departures were not disclosed.

Balisch told CBC he left the organization "on good terms." He was hired months later as executive director of Archery Canada, where he currently works.

Nicol did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sources say Karl Balisch, the executive director at Archery Canada, was a key focus of the 2018 internal investigation. Balisch would resign from Gymnastics Canada soon after the investigation was completed. (LinkedIn)

Disgraced coach allowed to travel, coach other young gymnasts

The internal investigation was launched after gymnastics coach Scott McFarlane faced several sexual assault-related charges in connection to alleged actions while coaching a young female gymnast at Manjak's Gymnastics in Mississauga, Ont.

Following McFarlane's arrest in January 2018, CBC learned he had previously been accused of sending inappropriate messages, including shirtless photos, to a 12-year-old female gymnast he coached at Tumblers Gymnastics Centre in the east Ottawa suburb of Orléans.

CBC has confirmed police never laid charges related to his time in Ottawa because the alleged victim refused to co-operate with authorities.

Gymnastics Canada hides behind their policies.- Abby Spadafora, Gymnasts for Change Canada

Tumblers released a statement in 2018, confirming the girl's parents had gone to Ottawa police with complaints about an inappropriate relationship in April 2013 — nearly five years before his arrest in Mississauga. 

The reasons for his departure were not shared widely within the Ottawa club until after McFarlane was charged. 

Multiple witnesses told the investigator working with Gymnastics Canada that Balisch, who was the general manager at Tumblers at the time of the Ottawa incident, knew of the allegations against McFarlane.

Sources say Balisch showed some staff members the photos and messages McFarlane had allegedly sent to the young gymnast, but told them to stay quiet or they could be sued, or lose their jobs. 

"[Balisch] told me at that time that I cannot speak with anyone about this matter as I have a confidentiality clause in my contract and because he didn't physically do anything," one source said.

"This situation made me extremely uncomfortable and I didn't know what to do."

Balisch confirmed to CBC he told "senior staff" why McFarlane was let go, but denied ever making threats.

"Consistent with human resources practices in similar situations, these staff members were told the reasons leading to termination of employment are confidential," he told CBC.

Sources say Balisch also received a complaint about another, prior incident in Regina where McFarlane allegedly kissed a national team gymnast, who was under 16, in 2012.

Scott McFarlane has pleaded not guilty to all charges related to the alleged incidents in Mississauga, Ont. (Facebook)

Ottawa police officer warned coach

Police records show an officer spoke to McFarlane in 2013 about sending photos and sexual messages to minors. Though police didn't have the evidence to charge, records show the officer warned against inappropriate communication with minors.

At the time of that conversation, McFarlane had already been hired to coach at Manjak's in Mississauga.

Balisch says once he learned about the new job, "the police were informed of this and given the name of the club."

McFarlane has pleaded not guilty to the 2018 charges. The verdict in his trial is scheduled to be delivered Nov. 21 in a Brampton, Ont., courthouse. All evidence in the trial is protected under a publication ban. 

The lawyer representing McFarlane has not responded to CBC's requests for comment.

Coach allowed to travel, seek promotion

Sources tell CBC that Nicol, as Gymnastics Canada CEO, worked closely with Balisch, whom he hired to direct the national artistic gymnastics program within a year of McFarlane being fired from Tumblers in Ottawa. 

The internal investigation would later question how much Nicol, as head of the organization that regulates gymnastics gyms, knew about the allegations against McFarlane. 

Regardless, McFarlane continued to advance his coaching career in the years that followed his firing.

Sport cannot be tasked to self-regulate.- Rob Koehler, Global Athlete

Sources say he sought Level 4 coaching certification from Gymnastics Canada — the highest level possible — which empowered McFarlane to coach internationally and attend national gymnastics camps in 2016 and 2017.

The camps were run by Balisch, as well as some of Canada's top gymnastics coaches at the time including Michel Arsenault (now suspended after sexual assault allegations), Dave Brubaker (suspended for life due to sexual assault allegations), and Alex Bard (accused of repeated inappropriate behaviour).

Balisch said there was little he could do back then to prevent McFarlane from furthering his coaching career.

"Policy around safe sport has come a very long way in the last 10 years," said Balisch.

"The reality is that while the policies of Gymnastics Ontario and Gymnastics Canada were followed, and Gymnastics Canada staff consulted, the policies in place prior to 2017 were restrictive for either of those organizations to manage a complaint received at a club level." 

Regarding the 2013 allegations in Ottawa, Balisch said policies stated "club matters had to be dealt with by the club and within the club."

Former gymnast Abby Spadafora, who has participated in a separate internal investigation into Bluewater Gymnastics Club in Sarnia, Ont., disputes the policy argument.

"Gymnastics Canada hides behind their policies in order to continue to enable abuse and protect the abusers instead of using their policies to protect the child," said Spadafora, who has also never seen the results of the investigation she participated in.

She blamed Gymnastics Canada for allowing McFarlane to "continue on a path" to coach at the highest level despite the earlier allegations, leading to the 2018 charges, which remain before the courts. 

Former gymnast Abby Spadafora has criticized how Gymnastics Canada uses its policies to prioritize protecting abusers as opposed to athletes and victims. (Submitted)

Current CEO claims 'little knowledge' of internal investigation

Gymnastics Canada's current CEO, Ian Moss, first joined the organization in July 2017 before taking over from Nicol in 2018. He told CBC he "had very little knowledge of the concerns that may have contributed to an internal investigation."

"I don't know what the investigation was about," said Moss, who was the organization's high performance director at the time of the investigation. Moss added the board of directors would have managed the focus of the investigation.

Moss also said he didn't know "if there was any connection" between the results of the investigation and the departures of Nicol and Balisch from Gymnastics Canada.

One witness told CBC she made Moss aware of the allegations against McFarlane at Tumblers in late 2017, before Gymnastics Canada's internal investigation took place.

Jan Parnega, the investigator hired to conduct the probe, has not responded to CBC's media requests.

Ian Moss, CEO of Gymnastics Canada, was the organization's high performance director at the time of the internal investigation in 2018. He would take over from Peter Nicol, who left the organization a few months after the investigation. (Mark Spowart/Canadian Press)

Public report into Gymnastics Canada coming in 2023

Koehler from Global Athlete says Canada needs a national registry of misconduct complaints from sport organizations to prioritize "transparency, openness and independence."

Amid calls for an independent third-party investigation, Gymnastics Canada hired McLaren Global Sport Solutions in June to help design a culture review for the organization and analyze its national safe sport policies and procedures. 

A report is expected in January 2023 — and unlike the previous internal investigation — this one will be public.

The organization also recently signed on to access services of the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was created to provide a one-stop, fully independent complaint investigator, as of Dec. 2 at the latest.

St-Onge's office previously suspended funding to Gymnastics Canada pending confirmation the organization has joined OSIC. A spokesperson for St-Onge said the sport commissioner will remove any need for internal investigations at national sport organizations.

Koehler is among those who do not support the new commissioner, Sarah-Eve Pelletier, who was appointed from the Canadian Olympic Committee. 

He's concerned there's not enough separation between Pelletier and her previous association with the Olympic committee, another powerful sport organization that's been the subject of controversies. 

He said athletes need more independent representation to "protect them and fight for them," and "athletes are afraid because retribution is real."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jamie Long is a digital journalist and editor with CBC Ottawa. You can tweet him @cbcjlong or reach him at jamie.long@cbc.ca.

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