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USA Swimming Head's Sexual Abuse Apology Shouldn't Put Sports Parents At Ease

Jun 10 2014, 4:56pm CDT | by

Longtime USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus  is finally apologizing for the scores of swim coaches found to have sexually abused their young athletes. I can’t officially say the apology came because, under pressure from victims, he withdrew his nomination to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. But I can say his apology was issued only four days after that happened. From Wielgus’ USA Swimming blog:

I brought this on myself in April 2010 when I said I had nothing to apologize for on a national television interview. Subsequently, I remained, if not defiant, at least defensive. While USA Swimming developed its groundbreaking Safe Sport Program, I championed the work of our national governing body. I talked about all the good that USA Swimming was doing in the fight to eradicate sexual abuse. But, I never apologized.

As time progressed, I became afraid that my sincerity would be questioned and anything I said or wrote would be judged as just an attempt to put public relations ahead of true remorse. So I remained silent.

While Safe Sport has evolved the past four years, I told myself that the good work we were doing was far better than any apology I could offer. I stood true to the small plaque that has been on my desk for my entire career, “Speak little, do much” and I took solace in this mantra. …

Now, when I look back and see how far we’ve come as an organization, I also recognize how far I have come.  Before 2010, I knew so little about the issues of sexual abuse in our society. Today, I have a first-hand understanding for just how widespread and devastating the problem is.

The statistics (by the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused) were previously just numbers. As I listened to personal stories the statistics began to hit home to me. These weren’t just facts, there were real people. Sadly, I now understand how under-reported sexual abuse is and I think of those who continue to suffer.

These experiences have all helped me to grow, and to know that I would never want my daughters, or anyone for that matter, to ever experience the horrors and nightmares that must come during and in the aftermath of a sexually abusive situation.And so today, four long years later, I can truthfully say how sorry I am to the victims of sexual abuse.

It’s stunning to me that anyone working in any organization that had anything to do with youth could, in 2010, be that clueless about the risk and occurrence of child sexual abuse by an authority figure, especially because even before that time I was already getting well-organized, officially sanctioned Catholic Church training about that very subject. (Pope Francis I had his own “I’m sorry” moment a few months ago regarding his organization’s own, well-known sexual abuse issues.) While indeed USA Swimming has taken steps to ban coaches suspected of abuse, and make sure it doesn’t happen, the “I-wasn’t-sure-anyone-wanted-to-here-from-me” tone of Wielgus’ apology still rings hollow.

Certainly, it did to those representing abuse victims. From The Associated Press:

Robert Allard and Jon Little, attorneys for 15 victims who signed a petition opposing Wielgus’ selection to the Florida-based Hall of Fame, said the apology was nothing more than an attempt to stifle criticism rather than taking a real stand on the issue.

“Too little, too late and forced,” Allard and Little said in a statement. “Another example of this organization under Mr. Wielgus’ leadership being reactive and not proactive. Leaders who are not innovative, creative and caring thinkers and callously react only when forced into action are not true leaders but mere politicians.”

While Wielgus stands by the organization’s Safe Sport Program, which was instituted after the sexual abuse cases came to light, he has continued to face criticism from Allard, Little and others who say he should step down if the USA Swimming is going to make real progress. In January, an independent report commissioned by the governing body recommended 39 changes to better protect underage athletes from predatory coaches.

Even if Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming since 1997, had issued the most sincere apology the world had ever seen, I would still advise parents to watch coaches closely. There are too many cases of sexual abuse of children by coaches still happening, even if leagues and organizations are more aware and better-equipped to react to it. Also, there are too many cases where sexual abuse inflicted by teammates to other teammates in the name of hazing not only happen, but appear to be condoned or dealt with ineffectively.

As a parent, you need to know that the team, school and/or organization to whom you’re trusting your child not only does background checks, but also has policies in place to ensure that the risk of sexual abuse is minimized. For example, that at least two adults are with children at all times, or at the least, that an adult is never alone with a child. You also want to know that the team, school and/or organization will react quickly and surely in cases when abuse happens. Fortunately, most coaches and leaders aren’t abusers — but those who are can wreak incredible damage.

Even if it might not be enough, and that it might not have happened for all the right reasons, it’s good that the likes of Chuck Wielgus are opening their eyes to the risk of sexual abuse. But no matter what, parents have to keep their own eyes open, too.

 
 

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