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Behind the Story: How Molly Hensley-Clancy investigated abuse in women’s soccer

12 min

Behind the Story is a series where we show how we report and produce our journalism.

Molly Hensley-Clancy is an investigative reporter on the Sports team. Since joining The Post in January 2021, she’s broken several stories about abuse claims in women’s professional soccer. One of her first pieces, on the Washington Spirit women’s soccer club, detailed verbal and emotional abuse allegations under former coach Richie Burke. The National Women’s Soccer League later opened an investigation into the abuse allegations against Burke and the Spirit. Burke was subsequently fired and the Spirit was suspended from league activities.

Most recently, Molly reported on abuse allegations against Rory Dames, one of the longest running coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League. As she was preparing a story on Dames’s time as a Chicago Red Stars coach, Dames resigned, citing wanting to spend more time with family. She followed up with another investigation revealing that Dames had been accused of similar mistreatment decades earlier — when he was a youth soccer coach.

We dive into how Molly uncovered the story.

Tell me a bit about your background. What got you interested in women’s soccer?

Molly: I came to The Post from BuzzFeed. I was a national politics reporter, so I was on the campaign trail and following mostly Democratic candidates around the country for a few years. I really loved it, but I knew that I wanted to try to do more in-depth investigative reporting once the election was over. Coming in, women’s soccer was the sport that I knew the most about. And right away, when I started talking to folks in that world, it became clear that there was a widespread problem with multiple coaches in the league. Once you know that there is more than one coach and that this is something that a lot of people are aware of, but no one had really publicly done anything about yet, that piqued my interest. It seemed like a place that deserved more reporting.

‘He made me hate soccer’: Players say they left NWSL’s Spirit over coach’s verbal abuse

You first wrote about allegations against Dames when he was a coach for the Red Stars. You then investigated his time as a youth soccer coach. You talked to many, many people and also included a number of documents. Can you tell me the story of that piece?

Molly: As soon as we published the story about Rory’s time as an NWSL coach, my email inbox and my Twitter DMs were just flooded with women who had played for him as girls, who were saying that they had experienced similar things to what the NWSL players described. Some of them [said] that it had been really empowering for them to read that a famous national team player like Christen Press had had similar experiences and had been willing to speak up and go on the record.

I’ve never gotten that many…. I mean, I probably had 30, 40 women and parents in my inbox that night and the next morning. That, to me, made it clear that there was more to say about him, particularly because at that point, most of the coaching abuse stories had been focused on professional players. I had women saying, “This happened to me when I was a girl. I was 14 when he was saying this stuff to me and that affected how I developed and how I saw myself.”

Once I started talking to some of the women who had played for him in the 1990s and early 2000s, I realized that the allegations were also allegations of sexual abuse, of sexual misconduct, grooming. I spoke to one woman who met him when she was 14, and she said that she felt he had groomed her. Then once she turned 18, he took her to his apartment and they had sex. She said to me: ‘I felt like I didn’t have a choice’ because he was still coaching her on her youth team.

‘Nobody believed those teenagers’

Once I knew her story, I thought, this is really important. I had heard that this woman remembered talking to the police about Rory when she was a sophomore in high school. We did a Freedom of Information Act request and got this police report back. I remember just being shocked at the breadth of the allegations in it. It wasn’t just one girl saying Rory had touched her inappropriately on her thigh when she was a minor, there were lots of other girls on the team who were saying that he had talked about sex with them, that they believed he had gone on dates with players, that he spent too much time with them. It was really documenting a lot of stuff that was similar to what the women had said to me.

Once we had that police report, we knew that it wasn’t just [that] he had done this to women and girls — it was that he had allegedly done this to girls and they had tried to stop him. They had tried to protect their teammates from him, they told me. The school rehired him after the police closed the report and he went on to coach for 20 years.

You interviewed so many women about experiences that were very sensitive. There’s definitely a risk of someone reliving their trauma. How did you approach those interviews?

Molly: With victims, I think it’s really important for them to feel like they’re in control of their story. I wanted them to know that there’s not going to be something in the story that they’re not aware of. If they don’t want a detail of the assault, then that won’t be in the story.

That’s an agreement we make with all kinds of sources. We would say [we’re] speaking on background and then we talk about what you’re comfortable being put on the record. I always try to do that with victims because sexual assault and abuse involves losing control, and it’s really important for them to feel like they can take the control back. I think that for most of the women I talked to, whether they were sexual abuse victims or not, it can be a really empowering process because you’re speaking up. I try to help them see and feel that, but if there’s ever a point at which a victim didn’t want to talk about something, I was very respectful and I let them know, ‘We can stop talking. We can take that out.’

I did speak to some women who, at the time, were not even comfortable being a number in the story. Later I did have some women who hadn’t even been able to speak to me reach out after the story and say, ‘I’m really glad you did that.’ For the woman who is at the center of the story and for Megan Cnota, who went on the record, I think they were in a place where they had really thought about this for 20 years and they wanted something to be done because nothing had been done for 20 years. So for them, it was very empowering.

Some people only spoke to you on the condition of anonymity. How do you and your editor approach anonymity in stories?

Molly: For the most part, my editor is always aware of who I’m speaking to. It’s an agreement between us, so my editor knows the names of the women who are anonymous. For the main woman who said she had had a sexual relationship with Rory, she did end up feeling comfortable being photographed. Both my editor and I and the woman thought it was good to signal to people that this is a real person we’ve spoken with.

One of the things The Post does is that if you have an anonymous source, you always have to have a second or third source who is confirming what’s been said to you. We spoke to the woman’s sister and the woman’s former teammate. She had some emails that she had exchanged with Rory in 2010. It also was really helpful to have the police report because the police report completely backed up everything that these women who were anonymous had been saying. And Megan Cnota, who is on the record, also said the exact same thing. Taken together, we had multiple sources. It wasn’t just one anonymous person.

On the other side of the equation, how did you approach the teams? What did you bring to them?

Molly: We approached them at least a week or so before the story was published, but in some cases even longer. I would usually give them an email that was a detailed outline of all of the allegations that were going to be in the story, so they knew not just that we were writing a story about them, but here was what the story was going to say.

We do that because it’s fair and also because if there is something that’s wrong, we want them to tell us. You can see in our story about Rory Dames, he said the allegations were not true, that they were defamatory. If there’s anything specific, then we go back and we try and nail it down. In this case, they didn’t specifically address the allegations of the woman at the center of the story.

We also go to all the secondary players in the stories too. I went to the high school that had rehired him to any other coaches that were named. It’s a very long process of letting everyone know that the story is coming. “Here’s what it’s going to say and anytime, you can call me to talk about this and if you think this is wrong or unfair, let me know.”

I also do the same thing with victims, I’ll walk them through everything the story is going to say. Especially with major sources or sources that are anonymous, I want to make sure that there’s no details in there that make them identifiable, so when the paper comes out, they’re not surprised or upset by anything they read. With the main woman in this story, we were really careful to not include details that made her identifiable because that was really important to her.

What was the reaction to your piece once it published?

Molly: To me, one of the most important things is hearing from the women. I heard from the women in the story that they they were glad it had happened, that they thought it was fair and accurate, so that means a lot to me.

There was a lot of outrage and horror. You know, this guy had been the longest running coach at the NWSL — he had been there for 10 years — so to find out that these allegations had been with him since 1998… A lot of people pointed out that there was exactly two decades between when this first girl reported him and when Christen Press reported him, and he had coached however many players between those two decades. I think a lot of people really latched on to that.

A number of stars of women’s soccer like Megan Rapinoe were moved by it and said thank you to the women for speaking up. The next day, a number of prominent players in the women’s national team wrote an open letter to U.S. Soccer, who had investigated him in 2018, and they said, ‘You’re not doing enough to protect not just us, the pro players, but also the youth players.’

USWNT stars say U.S. Soccer ‘stood by’ amid alleged abuses by coach

My hope is that people start thinking about the fact that many of these abusive coaches had gotten their start in youth soccer. What does that mean for U.S. soccer’s oversight of the youth soccer system? You know, this is the most popular sport in the country for kids, so what does that mean for kids?

At the end of your story, you included a call out asking readers if they had any questions or tips. What’s been the response to that?

Molly: I’ve gotten mostly tips about other youth coaches and youth leagues. I think there’s just really an appetite for reporting on abuse in youth soccer, so that’s something I am currently doing. I’m still looking for tips and for people to talk about their experiences. But that was my main takeaway. There’s a lot of stories out there and there’s a lot more to be done in the youth system. [Rory Dames] is by far not the only coach.