SPRINGFIELD, Ga. — A Georgia judge ruled on Monday that sexual abuse complaint files compiled by USA Gymnastics should be released to the public, offering a look into the Olympic organization’s policies for handling child abuse.
The ruling, by Judge Ronald K. Thompson in Effingham County State Court, was celebrated as a victory by some former gymnasts who were victims of sex abuse. USA Gymnastics opposed release of the documents.
USA Gymnastics said it plans to appeal the ruling, which came in response to a motion filed by IndyStar, part of the USA TODAY Network. That motion was filed in a Georgia lawsuit by a former gymnast who accused USA Gymnastics of negligence for not reporting four allegations against a coach.
An IndyStar investigation earlier this month revealed that USA Gymnastics executives have a policy of not forwarding sex abuse allegations to police unless they are signed by a victim or a victim’s guardian. The IndyStar investigation also published four instances in which USA Gymnastics was warned that coaches were a problem, but did not report the allegations to police. In all four instances, the coaches went on to abuse underage gymnasts.
Thompson agreed to unseal 54 sex abuse complaint files and 12 depositions taken in the case. He said he will review them first as a "safety precaution" to ensure sensitive information isn't released by mistake.
The judge said he is concerned about protecting the privacy of innocent parties, including victims and their families. Their names and medical records will be redacted. The names of coaches who have not been convicted of a crime also will be redacted. Thompson said the court will redact the files and open them to the public by Sept. 30.
An appeal to the state Supreme Court could delay the release, or reverse the judge's decision.
Michael Athans, attorney for USA Gymnastics, declined to comment to IndyStar. During the hearing, Athans argued that every name, including those of gyms, should be redacted or the privacy rights of individuals will be violated.
"Any information that's released, these reporters, who are literally on a witch hunt, are going to go and track down," Athans said. "For so many people, it's going to dredge up I don't know what kind of memories, what kind of situations. ... There is no public interest in that."
The judge, however, argued there clearly was a public interest in the information. "All of this is of public interest," he said. "The court doesn't disagree with that."
Thompson said the "court will err on the side of sunshine."
IndyStar's attorney, Derek Bauer of BakerHostetler law firm in Atlanta, noted that in a recent court filing USA Gymnastics said it had no legal obligation to report suspected sexual abuse to law enforcement because reporting laws apply only to individuals, not organizations.
"That is an unbelievably reckless position that the public absolutely must be informed about," Bauer told the judge. "It is of vital importance that the court minimize its redaction and restriction on the public's access for that reason alone."
The documents are expected to shed further light on how USA Gymnastics handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches who were members of its organization, including whether the national governing body reported those allegations to authorities.
Kelly Cutright, who was abused as a teen by her gymnastics coach, said the judge’s order to release the files is “a good first step” toward protecting kids who are part of USA Gymnastics now. She disagreed with the organization’s contention that there was a witch hunt.
“I don’t think asking for transparency about who is coaching and who is allowed to be part of their organization is a witch hunt,” said Cutright, who asked to be identified by her maiden name. “There’s a level of trust that parents are putting in gyms and coaches when they allow their children to compete. … It’s a big deal to trust your child to a coach. I don’t think I’d call it a witch hunt when you’re just asking for the truth.”
One of the victims interviewed for IndyStar’s investigation, Becca Seaborn, 26, also applauded the judge's ruling.
“I’m so happy to see the judge sees the need to make what’s going on with USA Gymnastics more transparent,” said Seaborn, who was 10 when a coach began abusing her. “It’s a wonderful first step toward making a change.”
Seaborn, who volunteered to speak publicly about her experience, said she was disappointed the names of coaches who had not been criminally charged would be redacted in records. She said that could allow coaches who were the subject of legitimate complaints to USA Gymnastics, but not reported by the organization to law enforcement, to escape scrutiny and continue working with children.
Still, she remained buoyed by the fact that the policy she believes contributed to her childhood trauma is being called into question.
“It’s awesome that people other than the families of victims and the media are starting to pay attention, that someone within the legal system is taking a stand,” she said.
Courtney Kiehl, a survivor of sexual abuse by a gymnastics coach and co-founder of Abused Children Heard Everywhere Foundation, said she was happy to hear about the judge’s concern for the victims’ privacy. She said she’s also happy he released the files, so the public can see what USA Gymnastics knew about the coaches.
“People need to know that this is something that’s been going on through the years and USAG has known about it,” Kiehl said.
She said the organization’s handling of complaints — specifically that it does not report every one it receives to law enforcement — is “totally unacceptable.”
IndyStar filed its motion to intervene in the case on June 13.
The motion asked Thompson to unseal depositions as well as the sexual misconduct files submitted as evidence in a court case filed by a victim of a predatory coach.
Those files cover a 10-year period — from 1996 to 2006 — and it's unclear how many have been created since then.
The “Jane Doe” lawsuit claims Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics was negligent because it received four prior sexual abuse complaints about the girl’s former coach, William McCabe, but did not forward the complaints to authorities. It contends McCabe was able to abuse the then-11-year-old plaintiff because USA Gymnastics had dismissed the complaints, allowing him to continue working as a coach in good standing for seven more years.
USA Gymnastics had asked the judge to dismiss the case, but Thompson also ruled Monday that the case should go to trial.
In its motion to intervene, IndyStar argued the sexual misconduct complaint files contain important information related to the safety of thousands of young gymnasts who train in the more than 3,000 gyms that are members of USA Gymnastics. IndyStar also said the files were improperly sealed.
USA Gymnastics says its rights, and the privacy of its members, would be irrevocably violated if the files become public. It contends the records were properly sealed under Georgia law, and IndyStar's claim of a public interest in the files is "a mirage, based on assumptions and unfounded allegations."
Near the end of the hearing, Athans told the judge, "There is a bad motive here. IndyStar's got a bad motive. There's no doubt about it."
Judge Thompson responded by saying, "I'll tell y'all right now, I'm not making a judgment on anyone's motives."