As It Happens

Hundreds of child gymnasts allege sexual abuse in gyms across the U.S.

Hidden for far too long. An investigation by the IndyStar newspaper reveals hundreds of gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse at U.S. Gymnastics gyms. Host Carol Off speaks with journalist Mark Alesia.
IndyStar's front cover story on December 18, 2016 / USA Gymnastics logo (IndyStar / Twitter)

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We see American gymnasts dominate at the Olympics. We see them flip and leap. We see them win gold over and over.

But there's another side emerging. And while no one knows for sure how many have been sexually exploited in the world of gymnastics — an in-depth investigation by the IndyStar has revealed that over the past 20 years, 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sex abuse at the hands of coaches and other adults working in gymnastics.

IndyStar reviewed hundreds of police files and court cases across the country and what emerged was a pattern of just how widespread the problem is.

It's almost always girls ... we're talking about kids as young as 6, and as old as 16 or 17- Mark Alesia, IndyStar reporter

Mark Alesia is a reporter with the IndyStar newspaper. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off.

MARK ALESIA: A little more than a year ago there was a prominent Olympic coach from Indianapolis. He had coached two Olympians. He was arrested on molestation charges and he ended up killing himself in jail while awaiting trial. So the issue has certainly been on our radar since then.

Marvin Sharp, the 2010 national Women's Coach of the Year, is walked from court at the City-County Building in Indianapolis on Aug. 26, 2015. The former Olympic coach from Indianapolis was charged with posing girls as young as 6 with their genitals exposed, according to court records. He killed himself in jail. (Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

But what really got us going is my colleague, Marisa Kwiatkowski, got a tip about a civil suit in a southern Georgia town where a victim of sexual abuse was suing USA Gymnastics, accusing it of negligence. She says that USA Gymnastics received warnings about the coach who abused her, who is now in jail. And that they should have done something before she was harmed. But what really got our attention was that part of that case had 54 files from USA Gymnastics on 54 separate coaches, filled with sexual abuse complaints. And these files had just literally been filed away and not reported to authorities.  
CAROL OFF: But you have been able to identify a number of victims and cases. Typically, who is being exploited or abused allegedly?

MA: It's almost always girls. But still some boys. Generally with gymnastics their careers kind of peak before they get to college. So we're talking about kids as young as 6, and as old as 16 or 17.

Jenny Brannan, who was 12 when she said coach Ray Adams molested her. She agreed to testify against him in 2013 at his sentencing for attempting to receive child pornography. (Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

CO: So how is it that so little is known about this abuse? 

MA: I think part of this is because gymnastics doesn't get a lot of scrutiny. For USA Gymnastics, almost the entire enterprise revolves around two weeks every four years: the Olympics. They're marketing, their money comes from that ... it's the Olympics that really drives this.

U.S. Olympic gymnasts known as the "Fierce Five" in Rio 2016: Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Simone Biles. (Twitter)

CO: But you do have stories, and examples, where coaches would be fired and they'd be moved around the country to different places and they'd start working again with no file about them having molested a girl in the last place. Is that happening?

MA: Yeah, and there are a few things that have allowed that to happen. These local gyms ... a lot of them are just small businesses. And some of these gym owners have just kind of pushed the predator sort of out the door and said just don't come back and we won't say anything, because these people don't want their businesses connected with sexual abuse.

A "predator's trail" from IndyStar's investigation (IndyStar)

CO: You have spoken with some of the victims, or people who have accused these coaches ... can you give an example of one of the cases where you found out just what was going on?

MA: A woman named Rachael Denhollander of Louisville, Kentucky contacted us after our first story. And she alleged that she had been sexually abused by a longtime USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. She is alleging that he abused her under the guise of doing a medical procedure for pelvic pain.

Rachael Denhollander at her home in Louisville, Kentucky. She recently filed a police report alleging that she was sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, formerly the main physician for USA Gymnastics. (Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

The aftermath of that is dozens and dozens more people coming forward. And he (Dr. Nassar) is now under indictment  by the Michigan Attorney General ... and just last Friday [December 16, 2016] was arrested on federal child porn charges. And it's vital to understand that this one very brave woman, who stepped forward, made that happen. That guy would probably still be out there if it wasn't for Rachael Denhollander.


In response to the IndyStar investigation, USA Gymnastics provided the newspaper with the following statement:

"Nothing is more important to USA Gymnastics, the Board of Directors and CEO Steve Penny than protecting athletes, which requires sustained vigilance by everyone -- coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials. We are saddened when any athlete has been harmed in the course of his or her gymnastics career. We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person's life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction and cooperate fully with law enforcement."


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