Swimming in the U.S. Under Fire From ABC News, USA Swimming Responds

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 9. LATER this evening, ABC News will air an "Inside USA Swimming" piece entitled "Secrets and Betrayal" on its television program 20/20. The report addresses the fact that 36 coaches have been banned for life from USA Swimming during the past 10 years "due to sexual misconduct with teenagers they coached."

After reading the ABC News article about the 20/20 report, it is apparent that ABC News is drawing a direct link to what has happened in the sport of swimming in the United States to the issues that have ravaged the Catholic Church regarding sexual abuse. For specific information, including some of the specific people involved in the report and the lawsuit currently going against USA Swimming, please click the link to the article above.

In advance of tonight's airing of 20/20, Swimming World had an exclusive interview with USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus regarding the ABC News article and the 20/20 episode. Additionally, we spoke with Wielgus regarding the wide-ranging issues of sexual abuse in the U.S. as well as the abuse that has been reported in the sport.

One point of contention that Wielgus had regarding the ABC News article is the following exchange:

"Thirty six does seem like a whole lot. A hundred is even more. Five hundred is even more," he told correspondent Brian Ross.

Asked if he had apologized to any of the young teen victims, Wielgus responded, "You feel I need to apologize to them?"

He added, "I think it's unfair for you to ask me whether individually or me as the representative of an organization to apologize for something when all we are trying to do is everything we possibly can to create a safe and healthy environment for kids who are participating in our particular activity."

When asked about his initial thoughts on the ABC News article and the 20/20 episode preview, Wielgus told Swimming World:

"It is hard to make a definite statement until after watching the show tonight. What I can tell you is that the interview was very aggressive. The thing that concerned me about the article was the way it ended. It ended with me making a statement that was accurate, but it was not portrayed in the context in which it happened in the interview. [The way that specific quote was used] makes me uncomfortable. It does not reflect the attitude I portrayed throughout the course of the interview."

"I think there is a huge distinction between USA Swimming and the Catholic Church that has been missed so far [in reporting]," Wielgus told Swimming World. "That distinction is that USA Swimming has never done anything to try to hide or shield coaches who have conducted themselves inappropriately. To the contrary, we have asked that coaches be reported. When they are reported, we immediately turn that information over to our legal counsel and seek to banish these coaches from the sport. That's not what the catholic priests have done. They have hidden, transferred and protected [sexual offenders]."

In response to Swimming World's follow up question about USA Swimming's process to help assure sexual offenders are eliminated from the sport, Wielgus explained the following:

"Anyone can file a complaint. You do not need to be a member of USA Swimming to file a complaint against a member. According to our procedures, any complaint that has to do with sexual misconduct immediately comes to my office and I immediately turn that over to our legal counsel. They then launch an investigation to determine whether or not they can substantiate and validate a complaint. If they cannot validate the complaint, then it essentially dies there. If they can validate it, then we ask for a national board of review and we always, in bringing a sexual misconduct case forward to the board of review, seek to have the coach suspended for life from USA Swimming membership. Sometimes, an individual will say that they do not want to go to a board of review and will accept a lifetime ban. We will agree to that."

We then asked Wielgus whether USA Swimming reports these cases to the authorities, especially those coaches that have accepted a more private lifetime ban, and Wielgus said:

"Not necessarily. Whenever someone files a complaint, we encourage them to go to the local authorities. First and foremost, these are criminal acts and should be reported to the police. We are, however, looking at a couple of things [to put into place going forward]. We are looking at setting up an anonymous hotline. Anyone who is frightened about talking to parents or to anyone else, they can share that information to us through an anonymous hotline that would be transferred to the police. Also, we are studying the feasibility and legality of establishing a black list where we would publish the names of individuals who have been banned for life from USA Swimming for sexual misconduct so that other youth organizations could see that list."

While the beginning of our interview with Wielgus focused on what USA Swimming does when sexual abuse has already happened, we then shifted to what USA Swimming can do to help eliminate it from happening in the first place.

One suggestion that has been making the rounds in the swimming blogosphere, mostly championed by Tony Austin at the Southern California Aquatics Blog, ever since news first broke about the lawsuit against USA Swimming regarding these issues is for the national governing body to apply some of the policies in place in the Boy Scouts. The two primary points are that there would be no one-on-one meetings and zero physical contact allowed between a swimming coach and a minor. The two things a pedophile needs to prey on a child are privacy and the ability to touch. If these two items were adopted the red flags would go up as soon as possible within the potential molestation process.

We asked Wielgus specifically about these two points as well as what USA Swimming is working on going forward to help stop sexual abuse in the sport:

"We are looking at what other youth organizations are doing, and what they have in place that we could apply to USA Swimming. It is a little too early to commit to those two specific things, and say we are going to implement those. However, I would say that those are on the table for us to study and consider among other things."

We closed the conversation with Wielgus tonight asking him what he thought was USA Swimming's role in trying to eradicate sexual abuse in the country:

"It is definitely a societal problem. It is USA Swimming's role to help raise the awareness of this problem to do everything we can to educate our membership, and to encourage reporting [abuse] to police as well as USA Swimming. We need to continually evaluate the safeguards and guidelines that we have in place for our coaches and athlete members. With all of that said, I still think that the parents and club leaders at the local level are better positioned to make sure the pool deck is as safe, healthy and wholesome as it can be. USA swimming can do whatever we can, but it is at the club level where the real supervision has to take place."