By PAUL NEWBERRY, Associated Press
USA Swimming will bring in an outside organization to evaluate its safe sport program, which was launched three years ago after numerous reports of coaches having inappropriate relationships with underage athletes.
The governing body announced Monday the review will be conducted by Victor Vieth, executive director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center and described as a leading expert on the prevention of child neglect and abuse.
The report is expected to be completed in January and will be released publicly.
"This is something we're doing entirely voluntarily," said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming. "We've been working hard at it the last three years. We just thought it was time to do an assessment. I think this assessment really gives us an opportunity to learn about what we're doing well but, more importantly, what we can do to keep evolving and improving the program."
A critic of USA Swimming, California lawyer Robert Allard, said the review is simply "lipstick applied to a pig" as the organization prepares to meet with congressional investigators. He again called on the organization to remove its top officials, including Wielgus.
"USA Swimming is scrambling to hide decades of failed child protection policies," Allard said. "USA Swimming has hired a PR firm, lobbyists, and now a so-called child protection organization, all in an effort to show congressional investigators that it is genuinely concerned about child protection. The reality is that like the Catholic Church, USA Swimming is using similar strategies to cover up their sexual abuse scandals by punishing whistle blowers, rewarding enablers, and blaming the victims."
Wielgus said USA Swimming has turned a corner in its fight to ensure athlete safety, pointing to guidelines that require enhanced background checks and training for coaches, officials and volunteers. The organization now maintains a public list on its website of 88 people who have received lifetime bans, mostly for sexual misconduct — nearly double the 46 names that were originally revealed at the height of the scandal.
The list includes Rick Curl, a once-prominent swimming coach who in May was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexually abusing one of the girls he instructed.
"We are in a much different place today than we were a decade ago or even five or six years ago," Wielgus said.
Vieth's review will look at everything from USA Swimming's code of conduct to screening, education and reporting methods mandated under the safe sport program. As part of his report, he can conduct interviews with the organization's staff as well as those outside the leadership structure.
"We applaud USA Swimming for giving us unencumbered access to allow our team to scrutinize the program, and, more importantly, to come up with solid recommendations to improve it," Vieth said in a statement provided by USA Swimming.
Wielgus did not release a cost of the study, saying those details are still being worked out, but added "we're not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on this."
"Really, in the grand scheme of things, it's a modest amount of money," Wielgus said. "But we've told Mr. Vieth he will have the resources to meet with whoever he wants and talk to whoever he wants. That's the most important part of this — to provide the funds to travel and have the resources he feels are necessary."
Allard, who has filed several lawsuits against USA Swimming over the sexual abuse of young athletes, was not impressed.
"No meaningful change can occur without full accountability for all that we know has transpired," he said. "USA Swimming's utter avoidance of accountability is beyond alarming and it's hard to see how any new initiatives — however well-intentioned — can be fully transparent and productive if those who were in positions of authority during so many instances of sexual abuse are still in power."
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