As high-profile child sex allegations continue to rock the campuses of Penn State and Syracuse University, a sixth civil lawsuit alleging abuse has been filed against USA Swimming.
The suit was filed last month in Marion County, Ind., and claims that officials with USA Swimming, Indiana Swimming and the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township all failed to respond to reports of abuse by a former coach beginning in 2001.
That coach, Christopher Wheat, pleaded guilty last year to sexual misconduct with a then-14-year-old female member of the Lawrence Swim Team. He is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence.
Citing a pattern of coverups, plaintiff’s attorney Jonathan Little has called for the resignation of USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus as well as others tied to the scandal. The suit also asks for unspecified monetary damages.
“Just like in the Penn State case, those in authority ignored sexual abuse claims and failed to report sexual abuse complaints to law enforcement authorities,” Little stated. “USA Swimming and Indiana Swimming have failed to protect [my client] and possibly hundreds of other swimmers by fostering a culture that places predator swim coaches in positions of authority to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct.”
Meanwhile, a settlement was reached recently in the first USA Swimming lawsuit, which was filed in Santa Clara County, Calif., in March 2010.
San Jose attorney B. Robert Allard had filed the suit on behalf of another teenage girl and alleged that since 1993, approximately 32 coaches employed by USA Swimming had abused athletes across the nation. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
“My client is relieved that this matter is behind her, but finds the most satisfaction in the fact that through this lawsuit and the media attention that followed, USA Swimming was forced to completely overhaul its child protection laws,” Allard said. “My client can only hope that USA Swimming is serious about enforcing these new rules.”
The accusations against the organization bear striking similarities to those faced by officials at Penn State and Syracuse. Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested last month and charged with molesting boys he had met through a charity he founded in 1977. In upstate New York, a longtime Syracuse assistant basketball coach is under investigation for molestation of young boys.
At each of the universities, serious questions also have been raised over which members of the administration and faculty knew of the alleged abuses, and what steps they took to notify authorities.
Though he could only speculate, Bruce Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said such cases could reflect the sense that the greater the bureaucracy, the more difficult the issues are to address.
“Everyone’s passing the buck, and what happens is they tend to lose perspective of the victim and the consequences,” he said. “And then you have growing skepticism surrounding the one reporting it, especially if it’s against someone who’s been around a long time.
“It’s a tough issue,” Wigo added, “but for these organizations, you have to chop the first tree down so you don’t infect the whole forest. You have to give credence to a complaint, and once you have it, you have to shine a spotlight on it.” For its part, USA Swimming has taken measures to protect the safety of athletes.
Following the initial lawsuit, the organization partnered with Praesidium, a leading sex abuse risk management firm, and adopted a seven-point action plan that includes, among other measures, new requirements for background checks.