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Congressman slams USA Gymnastics' Kerry Perry at abuse hearing

'You should resign!" one lawmaker told the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee
by Tracy Connor /  / Updated 
Image: Kerry Perry
Kerry Perry watches a meet at the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.Amy Sanderson / AP file

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Fireworks erupted at a congressional hearing into sexual abuse in Olympic sports on Wednesday, when one lawmaker laced into USA Gymnastics President Kerry Perry, who was answering questions for the first time about the scandals that have rocked her organization.

"How can you work for an organization like this that let this happen?" Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., thundered at Perry.

Then he set his sights on U.S. Olympic Committee acting chief Susanne Lyons: "You should resign your position now!"

Other members of the committee chastised Carter for "badgering" the witnesses and misstating several points, but he wasn't the only one who called the sports bosses to task.

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“I’m not reassured by your testimony because I don’t hear a sense of urgency," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

“What are we doing to protect these young people RIGHT NOW?" she asked. “The time for talk is over and you need to walk your talk!”

Quizzed about why it took the Olympic Committee seven years to create the U.S Center for SafeSport, an independent nonprofit that investigates abuse cases, Lyons said she understood it made the committee look "incompetent."

"Yes!" Dingell interjected.

It was a fiery end to the session, which began with statements from the sports federations, including USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo and USA Volleyball, about failures to protect athletes from predators in the past and efforts to do better in the future.

"First, I want to apologize to all who were harmed by the horrific acts of Larry Nassar," said Perry, who had not publicly answered a single question about abuse since she took over USA Gymnastics six months ago.

Perry also refused to take questions from reporters as she left the hearing.

It was the case of Nassar — the USA Gymnastics team doctor accused of molesting at least 332 girls and women, including gold medalists like McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas — that sparked a national examination of abuse in the Olympic movement.

Perry was not part of USAG when the scandal unfolded and she repeatedly told members of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that she did not have information about what had transpired in the past.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., pressed her on what public action USAG took after it first learned of the allegations against Nassar in June 2015.

"It’s my understandng that Mr. Nassar was asked to step away," Perry said. Walberg asked her if Nassar had done so. "I would need to see all the facts around that," she replied.

Nassar had, in fact, been told he would not be attending any more gymnastics events. But USAG did not inform other athletes or the university where Nassar worked about the accusations because, it said, it did not want to interfere in an FBI investigation that then dragged on for more than a year.

Carter drilled down on a lawsuit USAG settled last month with a gymnast whose coach secretly filmed her and other children, years after the organization had been warned that he was a possible pedophile. The coach is now serving 30 years in prison for sexual exploitation of children.

"Did you ever do background checks?" Carter asked.

"I was not there so I can’t answer that," Perry replied, drawing ire from Carter.

"This is ridiculous," he complained.

Other committee members focused on the inconsistency in policies surrounding abuse among the 48 Olympic sports — on background checks, tracking abuse complaints, and public notification of disciplinary action. For instance, only 18 sports publish lists of banned coaches — although Lyons said the USOC was working to mandate publication across all national governing boards.

Lyons was asked about a U.S. Olympic Committee policy document that says one of the factors to consider in the handling of abuse complaints is "the effect on the USOC's reputation."

"I have to admit to not having seen that before and I have to say it does not belong on that list," she admitted.

There was also concern over whether SafeSport, up and running since 2017, can handle the workload.

A year ago, SafeSport was getting 20-30 complaints a month; now it’s getting that many per week, said Shellie Pfohl, the center's president. But SafeSport has only 13 internal and external investigators, and Pfohl said it needs more funding.

Perry said USA Gymnastics does not have complete data on abuse complaints in the past but opened 275 cases between January and April and referred 78 of them to an outside investigative body.

I want to apologize to all who were harmed by the horrific acts of Larry Nassar.

Ahead of the hearing, some of the witnesses were busy making changes they could tout on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, which has been accused of lax oversight of the sports federations under its umbrella, hired a former FBI official as its senior director of athlete safety this week. And on the eve of the hearing, it announced $1.3 million in funding for victim counseling.

Last week, Perry abruptly fired the head of the USA Gymnastics women's program, Rhonda Faehn, while she was running a national training camp. Even those who had called for Faehn's ouster, angered that she did not immediately report abuse allegations against Nassar to police, said the handling of her dismissal was ham-fisted.

Perry gave no explanation for Faehn's removal, and at least five other USA Gymnastics staffers were let go in what the organization called a restructuring that mystified some fans and athletes.

And just minutes before the hearing started, USAG announced changes to the structure of its board, adding more independent members.

Although the Nassar case captured the public's attention, the issue of sex abuse in amateur sports transcends gymnastics.

Just this Tuesday, a 2012 Olympic swimmer, Ariana Kukors, sued USA Swimming, accusing the organization of covering up alleged abuse by her former coach — who denies wrongdoing.

Two weeks ago, four women who were on the U.S. taekwondo team filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were forced to train with two brothers, a coach and an athlete, who had been accused of sexual abuse since 2006.

A top volleyball coach was sued in March and accused of raping six girls starting in 1981. Rick Butler, who has denied abusing anyone, was banned from the sport in 1995 but partially reinstated five years later.

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