The head of USA Swimming recently offered a dramatic apology to the young swimmers who were victims of sexual abuse in his organization -- four years after he told ABC News he had nothing to be sorry for.
“I’m sorry,” read the first words of a post by USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, published on a USA Swimming blog Friday. “Those are powerful words some people have wanted to hear from me for a long time.”
Wielgus said he has been criticized for years for “not apologizing for not having done more to prevent sexual abuse by [swim] coaches” and said he brought the criticism on himself “in April 2010 when I said I had nothing to apologize for on a national television interview.”
Wielgus was presumably referring to an interview with ABC News’ Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross for an award-winning “20/20” report about pervasive sexual abuse in USA Swimming. At the time of ABC News report, 36 USA Swimming coaches had been banned for life for sexual misconduct over the previous ten years.
A recording of a speech Wielgus gave in 2009 revealed he was aware of the problem, saying, “We get calls at the office. I get informed about it.”
“One of my greatest fears is someone is going to start linking this all together…” he said.
In the 2010 interview with Ross, Wielgus acknowledged his words, but said sexual abuse was “not nearly as serious in USA Swimming as it might be in the rest of society,” since there were some 12,000 member coaches.
Asked by Ross then if he had apologized to any of the young teen victims, Wielgus responded, “You feel I need to apologize to them?”
“I think it’s unfair for you to ask me whether individually or me as the representative of an organization to apologize for something when all we are trying to do is everything we possibly can to create a safe and healthy environment for kids who are participating in our particular activity,” he said then.
Days after the ABC News report, Wielgus did apologize, but to his coaches, not the victims. In a letter sent to USA Swimming member coaches, he was “extremely sorry if our organization has not done enough to provide the highest level of child protection safeguards and guidelines.”
Calls for new leadership at USA Swimming followed the “20/20” report, but Wielgus remained in his position, “immersed,” he said in the new blog post, “in the work and our commitment to eliminate sexual abuse from the sport.”
In the wake of the reports of sexual abuse, USA Swimming created the Safe Sport Committee which is designed to help eliminate abuse in the sport. In January, an independent report recommended 39 additional changes to better protect young swimmers, The Associated Press reported.
“Now, when I look back and see how far we’ve come as an organization, I also recognize how far I have come,” Wielgus said in the new post. “Before 2010, I knew so little about the issues of sexual abuse in our society. Today, I have a first-hand understanding for just how widespread and devastating the problem is.”
Wielgus’ statement comes a week after he reportedly withdrew his name from induction to the International Swimming Hall of Fame amid protests from some of the alleged sexual abuse victims.
Robert Allard, an attorney for 15 victims, called Wielgus’ words “too little, too late and forced.”
“Another example of this organization under Mr. Wielgus’ leadership being reactive and not proactive,” Allard told the AP. “Leaders who are not innovative, creative and caring thinkers and callously react only when forced into action are not true leaders but mere politicians.”