September 13, 2013

THE HORRIFYING case of Kelley Currin — a teenage swimmer subjected to years of sexual abuse by her coach — focused attention on long-held concerns that organizations responsible for the well-being of America’s young swimmers weren’t paying sufficient attention. Some critics even charged that the sexual victimization of vulnerable athletes was enabled by officials who looked the other way but were never called to account for their failures. So it’s a welcome development that Congress is taking interest in these issues and that swimming officials finally are responding with promising initiatives.

USA Swimming is the national governing body for competitive swimming that’s charged with selecting teams to represent the country in events such as the Olympics. It announced in August that it was hiring an outside expert to evaluate the effectiveness of its sex abuse prevention program. Victor Vieth, executive director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, will examine the Safe Sport program that was established three years ago amid numerous reports of coaches having inappropriate relationships with underage athletes. Among the most notorious cases was that of star coach Rick Curl, sentenced in May by a Montgomery County judge to seven years in prison for his abuse of Ms. Currin in the 1980s.

The outside review, whose results officials said will be made public, will be “as independent as it can be,” according to Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming. He told us that Mr. Vieth will have access to all of the group’s records and that anyone with an interest or complaint can contact him. While the emphasis will be on identifying weaknesses and strengthening protections of the prevention program, we hope investigators will also look at how some cases were handled and whether officials were complicit.

The decision to bring in an outside expert comes at a time of increased scrutiny from Congress, which created the sport governing bodies. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) asked the Government Accountability Office in June to investigatehow child abuse allegations are handled by USA Swimming and other youth sports organizations. Last month his staff met with representatives from USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

USA Swimming also is adopting a more proactive media effort, closing loopholes in its code of conduct and possibly setting up an independent third party to adjudicate complaints about sexual abuse. Robert Allard, a California attorney who represented Ms. Currin and other swimmers who have been victimized, discounted the group’s efforts as window-dressing aimed at convincing Congress to back off. Mr. Wielgus said the measures are not prompted by congressional scrutiny but have been under discussion for several years.

USA Swimming’s record doesn’t engender confidence, but the group’s efforts hopefully reflect a new seriousness of purpose in tackling this pernicious problem. Congress, meanwhile, should pursue its own review, something that a group that says it has nothing to hide should welcome.