For those wondering if the problem of sex abuse in our national youth competitive swimming program is truly worse than Penn State - and if so, why - I say look no further than the Rick Curl case.
Last week USA Swimming announced a "provisional suspension" of Curl, one of the country's most prominent age-group club swimming coaches, former national team coach, and founder of the Washington, D.C., area's 950-athlete-strong Curl-Burke Club, which moved swiftly after accepting his resignation to rebrand itself as CUBU. USA Swimming postponed until next month an emergency hearing on information that Curl had molested swimmer Kelley Davies (now Currin), starting in 1983 when she was 13, and later paid the Davies family $150,000 in a "non-disclosure agreement."
Born to run
The evidence to date suggests that Curl was able to stay in coaching simply by changing jobs, and, for a four year period, leaving the country to coach abroad. In a 2010 deposition in a lawsuit against USA Swimming involving abuses by another coach, Brian Hindson (now in prison on child pornography charges), executive director Chuck Wielgus was asked if he knew why Curl had been fired from his job as coach at the University of Maryland, which ended without explanation in 1988 after a single season. Wielgus responded, "I never even knew he worked at the University of Maryland."
However implausible is that assertion, even less credible is Wielgus's claim that he had no information on why Curl left the country for four years in the last decade to work with Australia's renowned Carlisle club.
Also ripe for investigation are other instances of Penn State-like abdication of responsibility by colleges and universities for abuse by coaches of age-group swimming programs, which in many instances share not only pools and locker rooms but also staffs. For instance, Andy King, the California and Washington State coach who was called "a monster" by the prosecutor who finally put him away for 40 years, did many of his dirty deeds out of the facilities of Chabot College in Hayward, California, where he was involved with both the school swim team and a USA Swimming youth club that called the pool home. John Trites, who made the FBI's most wanted list for his clandestine locker room videos of nude female swimmers (and remains at large 14 years later), coached both an age-group club and the Franklin & Marshall College team in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Get out of jail free?
In April 2012 , Charles Arabas, a coach on the USA Swimming banned list, was released from an Arizona prison after serving nearly a decade on seven sex abuse counts. His parole supervision is scheduled to expire in October.
As a result of the investigative reporting of Sarah St. John while serving an editor of the campus newspaper at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri ( for which she won the Missouri Student Journalist of the Year award), we know that the Truman State administration appears to at least been on notice of alleged abuse by Arabas while serving as coach for the women's swimming and diving team there in the early 1990's.
Like Curl, Arabas left Truman State (then known as Northeast Missouri State) under mysterious circumstances. The university's extensive personnel file on Arabas showed that three female divers alleged that he had intimidated them into submitting to massage sessions in which he touched their breasts and genitals. An internal human resources investigation determined that Arabas "has been seriously at fault," and Jack Magruder, the vice president for academic affairs - later university president - put Arabas on probation.
But under legal threats from Arabas, the university agreed to hold his appeal of the allegations in "abeyance" and to tell prospective future employers, in part that: "... Chuck already had paid a price for the allegations and that he has been sensitized to the power of sexual harassment complaints. Therefore, it is believed he will hereafter avoid any ambiguous behavior in which his motives can be questioned."
It is difficult to understand, given what we know about Arabas, how the university could possibly have believed that Arabas had learned his lesson. In fact, it appears that the lesson he learned was, unfortunately, that he was free to go on abusing young swimmers with the knowledge that allegations of prior abuse were not likely to resurface.
And, of course, Arabas, like most pedophiles, didn't stop. His next employer was Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he became the long-distance coach on the swim team staff. He would subsequently add to his resume a coaching position with the USA Swimming affiliate Northern Arizona Swimming Association, as well as management of the local Wall Aquatic Center.
It was not until 2002 that the law caught up with Arabas when he was put on administrative leave after being indicted on 14 counts of sexual abuse and seven of sexual conduct with a minor, involving seven girls ages 15 to 18, over the previous five years.
And it gets worse: In 2004, Northern Arizona and the Arizona Board of Regents paid $50,000 each to three of Arabas's victims in sealed settlements of their civil lawsuits.
It is perhaps understandable that the breaking news about the full extent of the sex abuse scandal in swimming has taken a back seat to the Olympic coverage of the swimming exploits of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, and Dana Vollmer. But a day of reckoning is at hand. Just as it is not sufficient in the Penn State scandal to punish just Jerry Sandusky, but to hold accountable the university's administrators who appear to have turned a blind eye to his abuse so as to allow it to continue, so too must we bring to justice those who appear to have conspired to put and keep our daughter athletes in harm's way where they could be preyed upon by predatory coaches.
Irvin Muchnick is author of the ebook PENN STATE IN THE POOL: The Cover-Up of the USA Swimming Youth Coach Sex Abuse Scandal and writes the blog Concussion Inc.