RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The sport of swimming is back in the news, with new questions being raised about whether swimming has effectively confronted a sexual abuse problem, a problem that's been revealed in recent years. USA Swimming - the sport's governing body in this country - announced an independent review of Safe Sport, their organization's program to protect athletes from sexual abuse. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In the spring of 2010, swimming's secrets emerged in a flurry of media reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the last 10 years, some 36 swim coaches have been banned by the USA Swimming organization because of sexual misconduct.
GOLDMAN: ABC News was just one of the outlets that detailed the situation, prompting comparisons to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal: coaches molesting underage female swimmers, some of the abuse continuing for years without punishment. After the revelations, USA Swimming unveiled new rules and regulations in a program called Safe Sport. The program's website details, among other things, abuse training and education, the importance of reporting sexual misconduct. Within the Olympic movement, Safe Sport is considered the flagship athlete protection program. But three years in, there are concerns it's not doing the job. Stories have trickled in from people reporting violations of the new rules.
BOB ALLARD: USA Swimming manifested a complete disinterest in helping these people.
GOLDMAN: That's California attorney Bob Allard. He represents a number of sex abuse victims. And then this: Last week, USA Swimming announced a prominent expert on the prevention of child abuse, a man named Victor Vieth, will conduct an independent examination of Safe Sport. Chuck Wielgus, in his 17th year as USA Swimming executive director, insists nothing is amiss. He says we're just trying to improve.
CHUCK WIELGUS: We have a little bit more time on our hands, and it just seemed like a good point to pause and take a hard look.
GOLDMAN: But it comes at a time when Congress is taking a look, as well. Two months ago, U.S. Representative George Miller of California - the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee - asked the GAO to investigate how swimming and other youth sports organizations handle child abuse allegations. In his letter to the GAO, Miller wrote: recent reports about the abuse of student athletes participating in public and private swim clubs have raised a number of new concerns about whether we have adequate laws and policies in place to prevent and address such abuse. Tomorrow morning, members of Miller's staff are meeting with Safe Sport's director and U.S. Olympic Committee officials. Is there a connection between this new scrutiny and the announcement of a Safe Sport review? Chuck Wielgus.
WIELGUS: We're not doing this in response to that.
GOLDMAN: Yes, they are, says attorney Bob Allard.
ALLARD: USA Swimming is about to meet with Congress, and it's desperately trying to portray itself as an organization that cares.
GOLDMAN: It's been Allard's contention since 2010 that USA Swimming doesn't care, and it's why his client list is filled with former swimmers and why he has four active lawsuits against the governing body. One of his clients, Kelley Currin, was 13 when top coach Rick Curl started abusing her in the 1980s. Curl pleaded guilty in February, and was sentenced in May to seven years in prison.
KELLEY CURRIN: There are people that knew about this abuse.
GOLDMAN: Currin spoke after the sentencing.
CURRIN: People that are in USA Swimming positions of authority right now, and those people need to be held accountable for the fact that they knew and did nothing.
GOLDMAN: USA Swimming officials deny any cover-ups and say it was their investigation - started in 2011, after they say they first learned about the abuse - that helped bring Curl to justice. But the governing body, at least privately, acknowledges weaknesses in what it trumpets as Safe Sport's ramped-up efforts at sexual abuse prevention. A recent USA Swimming internal memo obtained by NPR mentions loopholes such as this: If a member committed sexual misconduct against a minor before the member joined USA Swimming, but no charges were pressed, we do not have a way to remove that member. I asked Chuck Wielgus about this.
Safe Sport talks about protecting young athletes, but if there is sexual misconduct that is known, can't you go simply from A to B and say that person does not belong in this program?
WIELGUS: That's what we're saying now. And I think had those things been brought to our attention, or had we realized those things three years ago when we began the Safe Sport program, I'm sure we would have initiated action at that time.
GOLDMAN: Jeff Renwick isn't so sure. He says his experience with USA Swimming and Safe Sport is one of inaction.
JEFF RENWICK: I'm from Monument, Colorado, and a parent of two great kids.
GOLDMAN: Who were eight and 10 when their swim club - one of nearly 3,000 under the USA Swimming umbrella - hired a new coach. It was 2010, just after Safe Sport started. Renwick and his wife did a Google search on the coach. They discovered he didn't have any swimming background, and he had a MySpace page filled with sexual images and words.
RENWICK: Our immediate reaction was oh, my.
GOLDMAN: It wasn't pornography, but still inappropriate for kids. The Renwicks took their concerns to the local club first, and then Jeff Renwick met with USA Swimming's Safe Sport director Susan Woessner. Renwick says she told him he was right to report the situation, but after that meeting, the local club kicked the kids off the team. Renwick says he called Woessner.
RENWICK: My first question to her was: Does USA Swimming have any whistleblower protection? And her answer to me was no.
GOLDMAN: In fact, a rule enacted just weeks before Renwick says he called Woessner in late 2010 states no member shall retaliate against any individual who has made a good-faith report. Woessner says she no recollection of the conversation with Renwick. She does remember in spring of 2011 making several offers to Renwick to move forward with a retaliation complaint. But Renwick says that was months after his kids got kicked out, months after he says USA Swimming should have contacted the local swim club and enforced the rules with a simple message.
RENWICK: This family made a good-faith report, and you can't retaliate against them. These people need to be reinstated onto your team, and the entire issue could have been resolved with one five-minute phone call.
GOLDMAN: A spokesperson for USA Swimming says the organization is very responsive, and since Safe Sport's inception, has had a dramatic increase in communication with members and reports of misconduct. Those range from non-physical sexual harassment to criminal abuse. Thirty-four individuals have been banned by USA Swimming for sexual misconduct in the past three years alone. Forty-five were banned in the 19 years prior. How will Safe Sport hold up under the coming scrutiny? No word on what Congress may do. Child protection expert Victor Vieth says he'll have unencumbered access during his Safe Sport review. He's expecting to release his findings to the public in January of next year. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.