WTOC Investigates: Effingham Co. family settles lawsuit against USA Gymnastics
EFFINGHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - For the last three years, we've been updating you on a culture changing case out of Effingham County that was the catalyst for an implosion at USA Gymnastics.
That organization always policed itself when it came to complaints by young athletes that their coaches and even their team doctor were regularly molesting them. That civil case, Jane Doe vs. USA Gymnastics, was filed by the family of an 11-year-old Effingham County girl and was set to go to trial this week.
Jane Doe's family just accepted a settlement from USA Gymnastics in that case, but for the parents of young gymnasts in training, USA Gymnastics' refusal to take responsibility for its actions might just be a bit unsettling.
Jane Doe vs. USA Gymnastics was likely the nation's first major civil lawsuit against a billion dollar goliath of an organization that until recently made up its own rules when it came to the handling of sexual molestation allegations from the children in its care. All these young athletes wanted was a chance to become Olympic heroes. In this county, USAG remains their only path to gold.
"The civil justice system in this country is the best civil justice system in the world," said Jane Doe's attorney, Brian Cornwell. "It's designed for cases like this. It's designed for a small family in Effingham County to take on behemoths like USA Gymnastics when they know that something was done wrong and it could help other people across the country."
This one little girl was the victim of dozens of perverted assaults by then Savannah Metro Gym Coach Bill McCabe, who is now serving 30 years.
What the nation did not yet know is that this one little Southern Georgia girl was one of hundreds and hundreds who was still being victimized by coaches and USAG policies that attracted pedophiles into their ranks. During depositions in the case, every member of USAG's executive ranks said they were proud of the organization's primary sex assault reporting policy.
"The first thing they did if you and your daughter wrote a complaint and sent it to USAG, what do you think the first thing was that they did," asked Jane Doe's lawyer, Jeff Lasky? "They turned the complaint over to the molester and said, 'there's been a complaint against you Mr. Molester,' and you get to respond. And you get a chance to respond."
For dozens of these coaches, that was the cue to move to another USA Gymnastics sanction gym and start over. That was the focus of Effingham's Jane Doe case. It was the Indianapolis Star, the hometown paper of USAG headquarters that first noticed what Jeff Lasky and Brian Cornwell had. Their efforts also caught our attention, and within two years, the national headlines and network lead stories were spilling the unbelievable into millions of living rooms each night.
"The USA Gymnastics case and the investigation into this case here in Effingham County started the national conversation," Cornwell said.
Effingham's Jane Doe convinced hundreds to tell their stories. It convinced Congress and the president to change federal law, making it a felony not to report child sexual assault to police, and it put every youth sports organization on notice that they better know what their coaches and staff are up to.
Like most settlements, neither side is allowed to talk about the dollars that changed hands, and there is another thing the Jane Doe settlement allowed USA Gymnastics to avoid: culpability.
"Does that mean that USA Gymnastics admits that they now have a responsibility to protect the young athletes in their care," we asked Lasky?
"The settlement agreement says that there is no admission of liability on the part of USAG, but every agreement you ever sign in settling a case, the defendants deny any responsibility and any liability, but the facts of this case speak for themselves," Lasky said.
Never once did USA Gymnastics turn over a molestation complaint by an athlete or parent to law enforcement. Not once. In fact, despite the new federal law, USAG chose to create what it calls 'SafeSport,' an agency charged with investigating sex assault cases within the organization.
We reached out to USA Gymnastics for a comment on whether there are policy changes in the works, as it faces more than a dozen more lawsuits from the victims of Dr. Larry Nassar. We have not heard back.
Our exclusive coverage of the USA Gymnastics case and settlement will continue next Thursday. For the first time, you'll hear the words of the victim, her family, and much more on how this billion-dollar sports monopoly misjudged a couple of small-town lawyers who saw this case as a cause.
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