Former D.C. area swimming coach Rick Curl was sentenced to seven years in prison for child sexual abuse at a hearing Thursday that also featured a revelation from Curl’s attorney that the University of Maryland knew about the abuse more than 25 years ago.
The sentencing in Montgomery County Circuit Court brought closure to a criminal case centered on Curl’s five-year sexual abuse of a swimming pupil that began in the 1980s, but it also raised new questions about the University of Maryland’s role in the decades-old case.
The victim, Kelley Currin, now 43, was 13 when the abuse began. She swam for the Curl-Burke Swim Club, one of the nation’s largest such organizations, through which Curl, now 63, had guided athletes to Olympic gold medals.
Currin’s parents became aware of her sexual encounters with Curl in 1986 and confronted the coach around their kitchen table, Thomas Kelly Jr., Curl’s attorney, said at the sentencing hearing.
They demanded that Curl sign a letter admitting that he had had sex with their daughter, who was then known as Kelley Davies. At some point, the attorney said, the letter was given to the athletic director at the University of Maryland, where, in 1987, Curl began coaching swimming and diving, in addition to his private coaching job. Kelly said in court that after U-Md. officials received the letter, they quietly pushed Curl out.
University spokesman Brian Ullmann declined to comment late Thursday. The athletic director at the time, Lew Perkins, is retired and living in Kansas, and he could not be reached for comment.
Curl resigned from the university with little publicity in 1988 after the end of the swimming season. Kelly said in court that the university had advised Currin’s family to seek private legal counsel.
In 1989, Currin and her family, with the legal guidance of attorney Judith Catterton, settled with Curl. They agreed to keep their silence about the abuse in exchange for $150,000.
“No one knew why they didn’t go to the police,” Kelly said.
Pam Davies, Currin’s 74-year-old mother, confirmed the account of the family’s interaction with U-Md. officials, although she was unable to recall the name of the athletic director.
“We just went there, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We wanted to do something that would hurt him [Curl] in some way. We ended up there.”
Davies said she was “very naive” at the time.
“At some point in there we asked, ‘What could we do? What are our choices?’ ” she said, noting that it was the athletic director who advised the family to seek legal advice.
The Washington Post typically does not identify abuse victims, but Currin decided to break the confidentiality agreement last summer — and go public with her story — during an investigation by USA Swimming, the governing body, which last year banned Curl from the sport for life.
“USA Swimming began an immediate investigation into the claims and filed a police report to initiate criminal proceedings in this matter,” a spokesman for the group, John Martin, said in an e-mail.
“Through its National Board of Review process, USA Swimming permanently revoked Mr. Curl’s membership, and directed that his name be placed on USA Swimming’s published list of ‘Individuals Permanently Suspended or Ineligible’ for USA Swimming Membership.”
The Post filed a Public Information Act request to the University of Maryland several months ago seeking documents, including any letter that Curl signed in relation to his departure from the university.
University counsel Terry Roach said that U-Md. was unable to locate many of the records and that “the few other documents in the University’s possession possibly responsive to your request constitute confidential personnel and retirement records.”
Curl’s confession letter, which was entered into the court file after Thursday’s hearing, was dated July 26, 1986. It is unclear when it was given to the U-Md. athletic department, which was headed by Perkins when Curl was there.
The Post has made repeated attempts to reach Perkins during the past three months. A woman who said she was his wife declined to speak to a reporter when reached by telephone earlier this year.
Gerald Gurney, an associate athletic director when Curl worked at U-Md., said it was “common knowledge” within the department that Curl had engaged in sex with an underage girl.
“You don’t easily forget things like that,” said Gurney, who is on the faculty at the University of Oklahoma.
“One day he was there; one day he wasn’t. We started asking. We were curious, and the coaches were curious,” Gurney said. “We were told he had a sexual relationship with someone from his swim club and that the parents had complained about him.”
Carl Auel, an assistant swimming coach who worked under Curl’s successor at U-Md., also said that Curl’s history was well-known at the university.
“It seemed like everyone knew at Maryland, but it was something you didn’t talk about,” he said.
In court Thursday, Judge Marielsa Bernard’s sentence — 15 years with all but seven suspended, and five years of probation — drew gasps from dozens of Curl’s relatives and friends who had packed the Rockville courthouse.
Currin traveled from her home in Texas to speak during the sentencing. It was the first time she had spoken to her former coach since she left for the University of Texas in the late 1980s.
“I loved Rick Curl. I loved him,” she said. “He was my hero.”
Her statement included intimate details of the abuse, including their first kiss at the Georgetown Prep water fountain and a moment alone at Curl’s wedding, when she wore a pink dress and whispered in his ear, “I hate you,” while they were dancing together.
Curl, who apologized in court Thursday for the pain he had caused Currin, pleaded guilty in February to one count of child sexual abuse.