Set Up to Protect Youth Athletes, Anti-Abuse Programs Fail Them Instead | Sports Destination Management

Set Up to Protect Youth Athletes, Anti-Abuse Programs Fail Them Instead

Jun 06, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When gymnasts came out in force to accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, youth sports organizations put their trust in the U.S. Center for SafeSport to help prevent further atrocities.

Unfortunately, the problems have continued to occur, in sports like bobsled, in figure skating, in rowing and in plenty of others. Recently, a Baltimore-based soccer coach who had received SafeSport training was arrested for abusing a minor.

At the same time, though, another youth sports demographic has been struggling, with reports of abuses against students in Catholic school sports programs – and those reports are continuing to pile up. And unfortunately, SafeSport can’t really touch those cases, since it only has oversight of those in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement.

The Catholic Church has its own version of SafeSport, known as VIRTUS (tagline: “Protecting God's Children® for Adults”). According to the website, it “identifies best practices programs designed to help prevent wrongdoing and promote "rightdoing" within organizations.”

Unfortunately, notes Forbes, “The major unvirtuous, if that’s a word, cloud over VIRTUS training is that it was designed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group — the ones who provide the church insurance to cover costs associated with those pesky priest-molestation lawsuits. Like any corporate lawsuit prevention training, it focuses as much on how not to get in trouble as it does helping the actual, you know, children. It talks about ways to prevent yourself from being falsely accused.”

Compounding the problems facing student athletes, alumni of programs and their families is the fact that accountability of accusers has been hard to come by. In Maryland, for example, the Archdiocese of Baltimore declared bankruptcy in fall of 2023 in the face of the multiple lawsuits it faced. By April 2024, 38 U.S. Catholic religious organizations had sought bankruptcy protection. Of those cases, 24 have concluded.

And many of the accusations are going unanswered, including one in Chicago, in which a priest was accused of lewd behavior at a high school wrestling event. In New York, a priest died before he could face accusations that he had molested a boy he took to a camp to improve his marksmanship skills.

A Catholic priest (previously known as the unofficial chaplain of Rick Pitino’s basketball teams) "was temporarily suspended” after two allegations of sexual abuse of minors at a Catholic high school. (He was later reinstated by the Vatican, which vaguely noted he had engaged in “imprudent behavior” and was forbidden to enter any primary or secondary school for five years; the outcome enraged abuse survivors and parents.)

There are plenty of other cases of children being victimized during sports programs in Catholic schools. A Gainesville, Florida case involved a Catholic high school assistant principal who was implicated in the alleged coverup of the sexual abuse of middle school girls by a P.E. teacher. And in another New York case, a gym teacher in a Catholic school was accused of assaulting students in his class.

Anti-Abuse Programs Ineffective At All LevelsCasting blame seems to be an even bigger sport, notes the National Catholic Reporter:

"Bishop after bishop will say to me, 'The media have caused this problem,' " said retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton at a fundraising event for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "They are the ones the bishops blame on a regular basis, as well as blaming the victims themselves. They want to keep it all quiet."

Which means VIRTUS is not being taken seriously, nor is it actually helping.

But in one case at least, sports and religion have been willing conspirators on the issue – something that didn’t sit well with fans (even faithful Catholic fans). When, several years back, news broke that the New Orleans Saints had provided public relations assistance to its local archdiocese as it handled sex abuse accusations, there was an uproar.

According to Sports Illustrated, “A civil suit filed against the archdiocese by a former altar boy in October 2018 had uncovered hundreds of emails that allegedly showed executives from the Catholic-named NFL team working with local Church officials on the crisis. Most of those emails are confidential — under seal and accessible for reading by only the lawyers involved — but some that have become public clearly show a Saints executive advising the Church on PR strategy.”

At first, the Saints organization downplayed its role in the affair, claiming it had been contacted by the New Orleans Archdiocese to help with a press release as a response to a list of clergy members involved in sexual abuse.

But the email trail showed the Saints “initiated this entire situation” and even pulled in other community leaders. Court papers alleged that the Saints “appeared to have had a hand in determining which names should or should not have been included.” They wrote, “It cannot now be disputed that the Saints had actual involvement in the creation of the Pedophile List.”

New Orleans continues to have problems, with authorities conducting a sweeping arrest warrant at the Archdiocese, as reported in May. Among the crimes under investigation are that of a priest who assaulted a student under the guise of showing him a wrestling move. (The archdiocese declared bankruptcy to protect itself from the flood of abuse claims.)

But if VIRTUS isn’t working, or at least not working as intended, neither is SafeSport, says USA TODAY: “According to the center’s 2022 annual report, less than 15 percent of the 12,751 cases it investigated from March 2017 through 2022 ended with a formal resolution. Another nearly 38 percent were “administratively closed,” meaning SafeSport made no findings and imposed no sanctions. The agency declined to pursue virtually all the rest, saying they fell outside its sexual misconduct mandate.”

At the heart of its problems, the organization is overwhelmed and underfunded. In fact, SafeSport’s budget is $23 million, and it gets only $2.3 million from the government (as opposed to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which receives half of its $28.5 million budget from the government). As a result, many of those who need to take SafeSport training (many governing bodies require their state and local board members and others to do so) must foot the annual bill themselves. And, notes USA TODAY, critics say there’s no way SafeSport can be effective if most of its funding comes from those it polices. (The case in Baltimore mentioned earlier is an example of one of those failures.)

“Going to SafeSport is like your local diocese saying ’Hey, got a problem with a local priest? Call us,’” said attorney Jon Little.

The problems, say, aren’t going unnoticed; in fact, they were laid bare “when a bi-partisan commission tasked with investigating the Olympic and paralympic movement in the United States issued its report on how to improve the sprawling ecosystem that it encompasses, including athlete safety. This was followed by two hearings, one in the Senate and another in the House of Representatives. The report totaled more than 275 pages and delved into the many ways the current Olympic and paralympic movement is failing athletes.”

On April 1, SafeSport announced in a press release that it was making changes to try to better its system. Unfortunately, it has already lost the trust of athletes, many of whom will try alternate methods to report abuse, such as going to the police and retaining their own legal counsel. Still more victims will not bother to report at all, under the assumption that nothing will change and that they will be made into pariahs.

USA TODAY notes that a 2021 survey by the global advocacy group, World Players, found 13 percent of 297 athletes surveyed worldwide had reported sexual abuse as a child in sports.

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