Push for bill tackling sex abuse after USA Gymnastics scandal

Shahzad ABDUL
The US gymnastics sex scandal led Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, to resign mid-March following allegations of turning a blind eye

Several senators and former star gymnasts on Tuesday pushed for a bill that would criminalize the failure of athletics organisations to report suspected sex abuse, after a huge scandal that shook US gymnastics.

The Indianapolis Star newspaper reported late last year that 368 former gymnasts claimed to have been sexually assaulted by coaches or other adults involved in the sport over the previous two years.

The scandal led Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, to resign mid-March following allegations of turning a blind eye.

A bipartisan group of senators is now calling on Congress colleagues to pass a bill aimed at ending the "culture of silence" surrounding such crimes.

Several former gymnastic stars were invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and at times struggled to hold back tears.

"For a lot of us, for so long we felt we had no voice," said Jeanette Antolin, a former Team USA gymnast and victim of abuse, at a news conference after the hearing.

"And to have the kind of support that we do now and finally have a voice is so important."

The proposed legislation would require amateur athletics governing bodies like USA Gymnastics, and adults who work with young athletes, to immediately report suspected sex abuse to local or federal law enforcement agencies.

Failure to report such acts would be a federal crime.

"The bill is very common sense. We want to make crystal clear that national governing bodies have a responsibility to protect young athletes," said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

"The culture was money and medals. The culture wasn't about the girl."

This law, she said, would send a message to the 50,000 gyms across America: "This is a new day."

The new law aims to make it easier for victims who wish to report their attackers, in particular through a call center that would guarantee them anonymity.

It would also mandate greater oversight of adults in gyms, and trainers accused of sexual abuse would be kept on record to prevent them being able to reoffend simply by changing their workplace.

Antolin said former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who is facing dozens of allegations of sexual abuse, had "got away with what he was doing... it's time for that to change."

- 'Turning point' -

Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and reform advocate, who was not sexually abused herself, said the legislation would mark "a positive turning point in the history of this sport."

The weekly paper that broke the scandal has since gained access to internal USA Gymnastics documents showing that coaches found guilty of sexual assault continued to work in clubs after their convictions.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal denounced the abuse of gymnasts who were girls at the time.

"The betrayal of trust here was especially outrageous," he said.

"The culture of silence imposed on them was the result of systematic, relentless, cruel pressure."

Rick Adams, representing the US Olympics Committee, stressed their "unwavering support" for the legislation, saying there was "no more important topic" than protection from abuse.

"We applaud the senators for taking up this cause," he said.