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GLOBETROTTING by Phil Hersh: SafeSport calls out figure skating for unchecked “culture of abuse”

Part of the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s home page on the internet.

March 4, 2019

In response to a U.S. Figure Skating letter that challenged its credibility and operating methods, the U.S. Center for SafeSport has criticized figure skating for a culture that “allowed grooming and abuse to go on unchecked for too long.”

SafeSport leveled that charge in a statement sent to Globetrotting that also rejected a USFS request made last week for the Center to complete its investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against late pairs skater John Coughlin.

In a Feb. 26 letter to the SafeSport board of directors, USFS cited concerns about the way SafeSport handles such allegations as a reason for wanting the investigation finished.

“Many U.S. Figure Skating athletes and members have expressed concern to U.S. Figure Skating leadership over the Center’s actions and shared that they have lost trust and confidence in how the Center processes allegations of abuse,” the USFS letter said.

SafeSport’s Monday statement said its work on the Coughlin case and “other Figure Skating matters” had uncovered evidence that there “was/is” a wider problem of abuse in the sport.

“The issues in this sport are similar to those the Center has seen in many others and cut across a wide population,” the statement said.  “This cannot be allowed to continue.”

The American Bar Association describes sexual grooming as a “a preparatory process in which a perpetrator gradually gains a person’s or organization’s trust with the intent to be sexually abusive. The victim is usually a child, teen, or vulnerable adult.”

USFS and SafeSport had been turning a tragedy involving both Coughlin and those he was alleged to have abused into an increasingly pointed series of exchanges.

In its reaction to Monday’s SafeSport statement, USFS clearly was trying to avoid any further escalation. USFS did not reiterate a desire to see the investigation completed.

“U.S. Figure Skating fully supports the mission of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and works in cooperation with the Center to help end abuse in sport,” USFS said in an email Monday afternoon. “The Center has clearly stated it will not advance its investigation into the allegations against the late John Coughlin. U.S. Figure Skating is constantly striving to ensure athlete safety and looks forward to working with the Center to better understand the issues raised in this case.

“We have and continue to encourage anyone in the U.S. Figure Skating community who has been abused or suspects abuse or misconduct to immediately report it to local law enforcement, the U.S. Center for SafeSport or U.S. Figure Skating.”

SafeSport’s latest statement on the status of the Coughlin investigation cited and elaborated upon the same reasons it had mentioned Feb. 12, following an earlier USFS request to complete the investigation. (Neither statement mentioned Coughlin by name.)

The first is that Coughlin’s Jan. 18, death, by suicide, has removed the need to finish the investigation because there no longer is a potential threat that could have been caused by his continued presence in the sport.

“Furthermore,” the SafeSport Monday statement said, “the Center is dedicated to providing a fundamentally fair adjudicatory process. Indeed, fairness dictates that the Center not complete an investigation when it is impossible for the respondent to provide testimony regarding events about which only he would have knowledge.

“While the Center can proceed with an investigation where a respondent voluntarily elects not to participate in the process, it cannot and would not, complete an investigation when a respondent is deceased.”

USFS had disputed that stance in its letter last week.

“While the Center may believe any threat has been mitigated by Mr. Coughlin’s death, the lack of a completed investigation has produced great uncertainty,” the letter said. “Further, the lack of a completed investigation has allowed for innuendo and continued speculation to dominate the conversation instead of a resolution of the facts.”

Coughlin was placed on restricted status by SafeSport in December and then given an interim suspension a day before he took his own life at age 33. Both the restriction and suspension are interim measures SafeSport can apply while investigating and adjudicating a case after it has received reports of abuse or misconduct.

Pending resolution of the case, the prohibitions prevented or had the effect of preventing Coughlin from doing nearly everything he had done in the sport since leaving competitive skating in 2014:  coaching, commentating, representing an equipment manufacturer and serving on international and national figure skating athletes’ commissions.

USA Today reported that SafeSport had received three reports alleging sexual misconduct by Coughlin and that two involved minors.

Sources confirmed to Globetrotting that the initial SafeSport notice of a restriction, posted Dec. 17, led others to come forward with reports alleging sexual misconduct by Coughlin.