By BETH HARRIS
An independent review of USA Swimming’s safe sport program paid for by the national governing body is recommending 39 changes designed to better protect underage athletes from predatory coaches.
The report released Monday was done by Victor Vieth, executive director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center. USA Swimming paid $25,000 for the review that began last August. Its safe sport program started in 2010 after numerous reports of coaches having inappropriate relationships with underage athletes.
Among the recommendations: Require all coaches, officials or adult members of USA Swimming to report abuse of any kind; Allow reliable hearsay if a victim is unwilling or unable to testify; Conduct a baseline study to uncover the extent of abuse in USA Swimming; and establish a victim’s assistance fund to cover counseling and other expenses.
Vieth said he reviewed 150 files, although USA Swimming later clarified that not all involved sexual abuse. He said every case was investigated by the governing body, but that one-third of them were not pursued because of insufficient evidence or unfounded claims.
“There are remaining weaknesses in the system,” Vieth said on a conference call, adding that unless they are addressed, athletes would continue to be vulnerable to predators.
California lawyer Robert Allard, a critic of USA Swimming, said true change cannot occur until the organization removes its top officials, including executive director Chuck Wielgus.
“Under this leadership, a deeply embedded culture of perverted coach-athlete relationships has been allowed to fester,” said Allard, who represents athletes abused by USA Swimming member coaches.
“The countless past victims of sexual abuse as committed by their trusted swim coaches demand justice and this can only occur, as with Penn State, when those offenders who continually ‘looked the other way’ so that they could focus on image, reputation and money are held fully accountable for their actions. This starts with job loss and continues, hopefully, with criminal investigations,” he said.
Wielgus called the report “incredibly detailed.”
“We’re committed to this,” he said. “This is something that is really, really important to USA Swimming.”
An eight-person task force was named to review the findings and make recommendations for implementation. The task force will discuss its findings with the governing body’s board of directors on May 3.
“Victor had complete access to our files and documents, and anyone he wanted to speak to inside and outside the organization, including some of our critics,” Wielgus said.
Vieth suggested a confidential survey of athletes to measure the level of abuse and how many abusers are at work.
“The greatest danger is what USA Swimming doesn’t know,” he said.
USA Swimming President Bruce Stratton said the board would be asked to prioritize the 39 suggested changes.
“Some of these can be implemented almost immediately,” he said. “Some of them will require changes to our current rules and those do require the approval of our house of delegates that meets once a year in September.”