‘Smoke and mirrors’: Congressional hearing on Olympic sex abuse frustrates survivors

"I thought the witnesses got off pretty easy."

Acting CEO of the United States Olympic Committee Susanne Lyons (L) talks with President and CEO of USA Gymnastics Kerry Perry (R) prior to testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on "Examining the Olympic Community's Ability to Protect Athletes from Sexual Abuse" in Washington, DC, on May 23, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Acting CEO of the United States Olympic Committee Susanne Lyons (L) talks with President and CEO of USA Gymnastics Kerry Perry (R) prior to testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on "Examining the Olympic Community's Ability to Protect Athletes from Sexual Abuse" in Washington, DC, on May 23, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — About two hours into the House Commerce Committee’s hearing on sexual abuse in Olympic sports, decorum was finally thrown out the window.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) had five minutes to ask questions of the heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, USA Taekwondo, USA Swimming, USA Volleyball, and the U.S. Center for SafeSport. He did not waste that time with pleasantries.

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Carter began by going directly after USA Gymnastics (USAG) CEO Kerry Perry, demanding to know whether William McCabe, a convicted sex offender from Carter’s home state who served as a coach for USAG despite the cloud of suspicion that followed him throughout his career, had ever been subjected to a background check. When Perry tried to evade the question by saying that she’d only started working with USAG in December 2017, Carter wasn’t having it.

“Find out!” he screamed.

Then, Carter shifted his ire to U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) CEO Susanne Lyons. He brought up a 2014 e-mail in which Lyons, who was then a member of the USOC’s Board of Directors, admitted to knowing about sex abuse in USA Taekwondo, referring to it as the “same old BS.”

“You should resign your position now,” said Carter, “That insensitivity tells me you are not fit to serve in that position.”

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While Carter’s display of anger was a rare demonstration of peak emotion for a typical subcommittee hearing, it led him off the rails in one moment, when he berated the Olympic leaders for not apologizing to survivors during the hearing — most of them had, in fact, already offered their regrets. One of his fellow committee members actually told Carter he should apologized for badgering the witnesses.

Nevertheless, Carter’s explosive anger echoed the frustration of many of those watching the hearing.

“I thought the witnesses got off pretty easy.” Jessica Howard, one of the 332 known survivors of former USAG and USOC doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, told ThinkProgress after the hearing. “They weren’t forced to answer these yes or no questions, they weren’t forced to give deadlines or timelines.”

Ultimately, as Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) passionately conveyed during her five-minute questioning period toward the end of the three-hour hearing, there was a disturbing lack of urgency from all of the assembled Olympic leaders to take blame for past sins and enact policies and procedures to make their sports safer.

I think there’s a real disconnect between their actions and their words,” Howard said. “And these people have no history of doing things quickly.”

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The hearing brought a few positive developments to the surface. The members of Congress on the subcommittee found some common ground with the witnesses, agreeing that the Center for SafeSport, a body set up last year to investigate claims of sex abuse in Olympic sports, needed more funding. Lyons said under oath that it was a top priority for the USOC to protect its athletes from sex abuse, and agreed that the USOC does, indeed, have the authority to do so — a direct contradiction to the party line the organization’s took during a 2016 deposition.

And thanks to Wednesday’s testimony, the public now has a much clearer picture of how many complaints SafeSport is currently handling. According to CEO Shellie Pfohl, when the organization launched last spring, it was receiving about 20-30 complaints about sexual abuse every month. Now, after Larry Nassar’s high-profile conviction, it is now receiving 20-30 complaints per week.

But for every productive revelation, there were dozens of moments where leaders dodged questions, gave meaningless answers, or seemingly lied to congress while under oath. (At the very least there were plenty of intentionally misleading statements, if we’re being generous.)

“Congress created the USOC, and they can end the USOC.”

USA Taekwondo CEO Steve McNally didn’t have a direct answer for one lawmaker who asked him whether USAT had any protocols in place to punish those within its ranks who knew about sex abuse but did nothing to stop it. Asked as to when all 47 National Governing Bodies (NGBs) will have to publicly post lists of coaches who have been banned for sex abuse, Lyons was unable to provide any firm information. Lyons also failed to provide an explanation for the USOC’s role in renewing USAG’s contract with the Karolyi Ranch — even after both the USOC and USAG were aware that Nassar had abused gymnasts there. And while all agreed that SafeSport needed to be a truly independent oversight body, nobody mentioned the fact that it’s currently only independent of the NGBs — not the USOC.

Perry was, perhaps, the most misleading of them all. She emphatically took credit for having quickly shut down the Karolyi Ranch once she took over the job. However, she did not mention that she took no action to close the facility until Olympic champion Simone Biles tweeted out that she was a Nassar survivor who would — as an athlete training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo — be forced to “continually return to the same training center where I was abused.”

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Additionally, Perry told the subcommittee that she had been “at the hearings” this past winter, where more than 200 Nassar survivors gave victim impact statements about his abuse. What she left unsaid is the fact that she only attended one day of the hearings — one day out of 10. She further insisted that USAG had an “athlete task force,” dedicated to giving athletes a voice in the process — news that came as a surprise to many gymnasts.

Perry did issue an apology, but only to Nassar’s victims — a fact that bothered many other survivors of sexual abuse by USAG coaches and trainers, including Amy Duval, who was abused by her USAG coach in 1982, when she was just 15 years old.

I feel like they haven’t lifted a finger, I feel like they just want to move on,” Duval told ThinkProgress by phone from Dallas, where she was following updates from the hearing. “She only apologized to Nassar victims, from what I saw today. They have not addressed all of the harm.”

To cap things off, at the end of the hearing, Perry quickly exited and refused to ask questions from reporters. She’s been in the job for six months, and hasn’t given a single interview during that time.

So much for transparency.

It’s a wonder that more people don’t lose their temper the way that Carter did while following this hearing. New CEOs, such as Lyons and Perry, attempted to dodge responsibility because they weren’t in positions of power when the most egregious crimes and cover-ups happened. Ongoing investigations were propped up as progress, in exchange for concrete answers about who knew what, when. And true transparency seemed like a foreign concept to all.

Dia Rianda, a USA Swimming (USAS) Lifetime Member and coach who sued a former U.S. national swimming coach in 2012 for firing her because she exposed a sexual predator on staff, told ThinkProgress after the hearing that the only way real reform could come to the sprawling network of Olympic organizations would be for congress to launch a criminal investigation.

Until people in leadership positions pay the consequences criminally, nothing will change,” Rianda said. “And until these NGBs and USOCs find more ethical legal counsel, nothing will change for the athletes.

“This is all smoke and mirrors. Nothing is going to change.”

Still, amidst the disappointment, anger, and exhaustion that lingered in the air after the hearing, there was a tinge of hope — if only because congress did seem to finally be paying attention, to finally truly care.

“Congress created the USOC, and they can end the USOC,” said attorney Jon Little, who has represented many surivors of sexual abuse in lawsuits against the USOC over the years.

“Any attention this is getting is a massive accomplishment for those who came forward,” Howard said.

“The fact that we have Congress behind us trying to legislate change, it makes me believe in the good that can come from these situations, and I honestly didn’t think that was possible.”