Senator on US Figure Skating's handling of sexual abuse allegations: 'It's outrageous'

She was responding to an ABC News investigation of the handling of a 1999 case.

March 13, 2018, 7:15 PM

Another national sports governing body is facing tough questions from a leading lawmaker amid accusations that a figure skater’s allegations of sexual abuse by a top coach were swept under the rug.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, blasted U.S. Figure Skating for its handling of sexual abuse allegations originally filed in 1999 against Olympic coach Richard Callaghan, who led Tara Lipinski to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games. Shaheen renewed her calls for a special committee to investigate the United States Olympic Committee’s response to what she says seems to be a systemic cultural problem.

“It’s outrageous, and it speaks to the culture that has been created that says there is no accountability,” Shaheen told ABC News on Tuesday. “We need to be able to bring people in front of an investigative body and put them under oath and force them to testify to find out what has really gone on here.”

Craig Maurizi, also an Olympic figure skating coach who recently returned from the Winter Games in South Korea, says Callaghan began abusing him when he was young skater training with him. Callaghan was suspended last week, pending a new investigation of the original claims, after Maurizi submitted a complaint to U.S. Center for SafeSport, the USOC’s misconduct watchdog.

Shaheen said an ABC News investigation detailing U.S. Figure Skating’s handling of those allegations, which the association quickly dismissed as “untimely” without ever interviewing Maurizi, raises the specter of yet another scandal in yet another sport following recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the elite levels of both gymnastics and swimming.

PHOTO: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) (R) talks to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) (2nd L) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) (L) prior to a news conference at the Capitol, Feb. 7, 2018.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) (R) talks to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) (2nd L) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) (L) prior to a news conference at the Capitol, Feb. 7, 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Why was it not investigated when it was reported? Why was Callaghan allowed to continue to coach for another 20 years before forcing him to step aside?” Shaheen said. “Those are the kind of questions we need to ask, and we need answers for those athletes that have been abused.”

Neither U.S. Figure Skating nor the USOC responded to requests for comment on Shaheen’s statements, but a spokesperson for U.S. Figure Skating said the Association has a “zero tolerance” policy regarding abuse and pointed to abuse policies and reporting rules instituted in 2000, shortly after Maurizi’s initial complaint.

President Donald Trump recently signed a bill requiring national sports governing bodies who receive sexual abuse allegations to report them to law enforcement within 24 hours, but Shaheen and others say that new legislation is not enough.

“Olympians want to see people held accountable for what they did and what they failed to do,” she said.

John Manly, a California attorney who represents Maurizi and many of the gymnasts who accused Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, said many of his clients feel that SafeSport is “nothing more than public relations cover for the USOC." He called for a “massive federal investigation” of the USOC and its governing bodies, including U.S. Figure Skating.

“People that investigate themselves rarely find themselves guilty,” Manly told ABC News. “There needs to be an independent outside criminal investigation of the USOC … so we can know what they knew, when they knew it and … hold people to account.”

PHOTO: John Manly is a California attorney who specializes is representing victims of sexual abuse.
John Manly is a California attorney who specializes is representing victims of sexual abuse.
ABC News

A spokesperson for SafeSport defended the organization’s independence and touted that in its first year of operation the organization has handled 536 reports across 37 different sports.

“We are an independent body governed by an independent board,” the spokesperson said. “Our mission is the wellbeing of athletes and protecting them from all forms of abuse. The Center is working. We are achieving our mission. SafeSport is needed now more than ever … We care about the survivors and the athletes who have been harmed and we want everyone to know there is a confidential, professional, independent place where they can report any form of sexual misconduct within the Olympic movement.”

Christine Brennan, a sports columnist and ABC News contributor who trailed several top skaters and coaches, including Callaghan, during the 1994-95 season for her 1996 book Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating, likened the flood of allegations to an “awakening.”

Public pressure, she said, could finally change the calculus for organizations that many observers believe have long prioritized medals and money over the safety and security of their elite athletes, many of whom — especially in sports like gymnastics, swimming and figure skating — are children.

“I’m sure there are millions of Americans out there that are saying, ‘What in the world is happening in the name of the U.S. Olympic effort?’" Brennan said. “And that is a question we should all be asking ourselves today.”

ABC News’ Noor Ibrahim and Maureen Sheeran contributed to this report.

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