Opinion

Protecting young athletes from sexual abuse

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Ten years ago, Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympics gold medalist, accused her former coaches of emotional and physical abuse. Rather than taking her allegations seriously, however, USA Gymnastics was dismissive of the concerns Moceanu raised.

Years later, it is evident that USA Gymnastics’ practice of ignoring accusations of abuse created a toxic culture that resulted in hundreds of girls and young women being sexually abused by coaches, trainers, doctors, and sports officials. The most appalling example of this exploitation, Dr. Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics physician, was sentenced on Jan. 24 to up to 175 years in prison for his horrendous sexual abuse of girls and young women. More than 150 courageous victims testified about the horror of being sexually assaulted by this serial predator over the course of his nearly two decades of employment by USA Gymnastics.

On Jan. 30, Congress took a major step toward protecting athletes when the Senate unanimously passed bipartisan legislation I co-authored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California that will help protect America’s amateur athletes from sexual abuse. Our bill passed in the House by an overwhelming vote of 406-3 and is now headed to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

At a press conference before the Senate vote, Sen. Feinstein and I were honored to be joined by four former American gymnasts who courageously came forward to expose the crimes committed by Dr. Nassar and others. One of them was Moceneau. She called our legislation “a huge victory, a distinct and positive turning point in our sport and in all sports.”

The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act requires amateur athletics governing bodies to report sex-abuse allegations immediately to local or federal law enforcement. Our bill further authorizes the United States Center for SafeSport to ensure that aspiring U.S. Olympic athletes can report allegations of abuse to an independent entity for investigation and resolution and to make sure that all national governing bodies follow the strictest standards for child abuse prevention and detection.

When we first introduced this bill in March last year, it followed the investigation by the Indianapolis Star newspaper, which reported that more than 360 gymnasts had alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics. Predatory coaches moved from gym to gym, undetected by a lax system of oversight. Other serious allegations of sexual abuse have been made against personnel involved with USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo.

Last year, the Judiciary Committee heard moving testimony from American gymnasts who bravely spoke out about the repugnant incidences of their own abuse. We are grateful to them for courageously sharing their deeply personal and horrific experiences.

In addition to requiring amateur athletic governing bodies, like USA Gymnastics and other U.S. Olympic organizations, to report allegations of abuse, our bill also requires all adults who interact with minors and amateur athletes to promptly report every allegation of sexual abuse to the proper authorities – that means within 24 hours.

Those adults who are responsible for the safety of young athletes must be held accountable. Our bill makes sure that strong sexual abuse prevention policies are implemented and that survivors can safely report these crimes when they occur. In addition, because it’s sometimes difficult for children to recognize that they have had crimes committed against them until much later on into adulthood, our bill extends the statute of limitations to help ensure that victims get the justice they deserve.

This month, America’s best athletes will travel to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. As we cheer them on and celebrate their accomplishments, we must ensure that the young athletes who train to represent our country at the top levels of competition, and those at all levels who aspire to compete, should never again have to fear victimization by trusted coaches, trainers, doctors and sports officials.

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