Disclosure of Sexual Abuse in USA Gymnastics Sets Off Wheels of Change

In August 2016, the Indy Star, published a scathing look into USA Gymnastics’ history of sexual abuse and coverups, revealing that dozens of young athletes had experienced abuse at the hands of trusted doctors and coaches. The effect of the story among athletes in similar positions was powerful. More and more, adult survivors of child sexual abuse are coming forward—and they’re seeking justice.

According to the New York Times, “more than 80 gymnasts have come forward with sexual abuse allegations against Larry Nassar, a former national gymnastics team doctor who worked in all levels of the sport, including with Olympians, from 1995 to 2015.” As more research of the neurobiology of trauma comes to light, there is increased understanding about the effects of experiencing trauma, such as sexual abuse. Trauma at a young age can be particularly harmful when the systems in place to protect children fail to provide safety—or when those systems are the cause of the trauma itself.

“We know that for many survivors of child sexual abuse, it can take years to come forward,” explained Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN. “Many children don’t have a firm understanding of physical boundaries, the ‘good touch, bad touch,’ lessons,” he continued. “They may lack the language skills to ask for help—or lack the source of help at all. But every day, we’re seeing more kids come forward. They have great courage —and they’re asking for justice.”

RAINN has publicly issued support for the survivors coming forward about their experiences, and condemned the gag order issued during the Nassar case. “For many survivors, speaking about their experience, whether it’s to a friend, family member, or before a court, is an important part of the healing process,” said Brian Pinero, RAINN’s vice president of victim services. USA Gymnastics is not alone in facing concerns of unchecked abuse. Similar allegations have been made across other sporting bodies, including USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo, leading key lawmakers to step up and pass legislation that would curb these abuses. RAINN worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and a bipartisan team of lawmakers who introduced a bill this March that hopes to change the way sporting organizations prevent and respond to incidents of sexual violence.

While it is often the coaches and doctors coming under scrutiny in these cases, it’s important to remember the positive role that coaches, healthcare providers, and other adults can play in keeping children safe. “Bystander intervention isn’t just about looking out for a friend at a party,” said Berkowitz. “It’s about learning the signs of abuse and knowing where to turn when something doesn’t seem right.”

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