Bill requiring abuse reports by amateur groups moves

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. House recently passed legislation that would require Olympic sports organizations such as USA Gymnastics that work with young athletes to promptly report suspected child abuse to law enforcement.

The measure was prompted by reports of abuse by young athletes at the hands of coaches, trainers and doctors in the USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming organizations that dated back decades.

Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, said the scandal at USA Gymnastics illustrated the need for the bill because so many complaints of sexual and emotional abuse went unreported by the organization, which allowed coaches, instructors and doctors to repeatedly victimize gymnasts.

“The shocking failure of anyone to report accusations to law enforcement or even keep track of complaints internally made it possible for some of these predators to commit horrific acts at several gyms,” Conyers said on the House floor.

Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, recounted the example of former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar, who was affiliated with USA Gymnastics and is charged with 15 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in the 55th District Court near Lansing. Nassar also faces additional state and federal charges.

Allegations emerged in September that Nassar treated injured athletes with a procedure that involved him digitally penetrating young female patients without their consent.

The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017, which passed the House with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, also requires the national governing bodies to implement stronger policies and procedures aiming to prevent such abuse from happening again.

The bill strengthens civil remedies for victims of sexual abuse who wish to seek civil damages from their abusers, and relaxes the statute of limitations standard for victims, giving a minor victim 10 years from the time they reach adulthood to file suit.

Republican Rep. Susan W. Brooks, a former federal prosecutor from Indiana, sponsored the legislation. She said during debate that the bodies of Olympic sports had faced “little to no repercussions for their heinous actions” in failing to report allegations of abuse to the authorities.

“Our Olympic Committee utterly failed and must do better,” she said.

The vote on the bill in late May was 415-3. One of the three opposing members was GOP Rep. Justin Amash, who represents the Grand Rapids area.

Amash also voted against the Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017, which would make it a crime to knowingly consent to the visual depiction or live transmission of child pornography.

An Amash spokeswoman said he opposed the measures because they “prohibit some conduct that the Constitution does not allow Congress to regulate.”

Amash, as well as Conyers and several dozen Democrats, objected to the Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act, on the basis that it would expand mandatory minimum sentences to classes of crimes that already may be prosecuted at the state level. The bill passed the House by a vote of 368-51.

Critics of mandatory minimum sentences say they disproportionately affect minorities and prohibit judges and prosecutors from exercising discretion based on the circumstances of each case.

Some lawmakers worried that the Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act could subject teenagers engaged in “sexting” to a mandatory minimum of 15 years imprisonment. An example would be a teen boyfriend and teen girlfriend who request that one another share sexually explicit images of themselves by text.

“This law does not allow the judge to consider whether or not the conduct may have been consensual between minors. This circumstance is irrelevant when the sentence is mandatory,” Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott said during debate.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, defended the minimum sentences as appropriate under the statute.

“There is simply no evidence that federal prosecutors are abusing the statute, and I think we should all recognize that producing child pornography is a horrific crime,” Johnson said.

“The harm is too great to these victims not to have significant penalties available to deter this conduct and punish the producers of child pornography.”