Gymnasts wonder if recent abuse case could have been prevented had they been heard

·6 min read

Abby Spadafora has had trouble sleeping since a gymnastics coach in Lethbridge, Alta., was charged with sexually assaulting a seven-year-old girl last week.

Spadafora and other Canadian gymnasts say they're devastated about the case that is only too familiar. And they wonder if it could have been prevented.

Gymnasts for Change, a group that has grown to over 500 current and retired gymnasts, has been calling on Sport Canada for an independent investigation into their sport for months. And while they applaud the swift measures taken against Hockey Canada around an alleged sexual assault of a woman in 2018 by members of its junior men's team, they wonder why no-one is hearing their own cries for change.

"The woman in hockey, she deserves every single piece of support out there," said Spadafora. "And it's heartbreaking when you know that there's hundreds if not thousands of little girls being abused and being ignored (in gymnastics). It's really hard to swallow."

Jamie Ellacott, 33, was charged July 12 with sexual assault and sexual interference following an investigation by the Lethbridge Police Service violent crimes unit, which determined a seven-year-old girl was assaulted during training in May and June at the Lethbridge Gymnastics Academy.

"It kept me up at night when the story broke, because all I could think is if we had been listened to, this could have been prevented," Spadafora said.

The 38-year-old Spadafora detailed in a public letter in May her own allegations of years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in the 1990s by coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker.

Amelia Cline filed a class-action lawsuit in May against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial member organizations over alleged abuse. The class has over 100 members.

"I have certain complicated feelings about (the Hockey Canada case)," Cline said. "Because on the one hand, of course, it should be getting attention. It's horrible. But in the face of the inaction and silence that we've received, it's frustrating.

"Gymnasts is hundreds (of cases) and they’re children. Why is that not getting people's attention?"

Quebec gymnast Thierry Pellerin pleaded guilty last week to sex offences against two minors. He was charged back in 2020 with nine counts including luring a child, invitation to sexual touching and making child pornography. The two alleged victims were between 10 and 12 years old.

Last month, MPs grilled Hockey Canada executives during a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage meeting about the organization's response to the alleged assault and subsequent out-of-court-settlement.

"Their swift and honourable actions with the hockey abuse scandal show that they are not tolerant of abuse in Canadian sport," said Kim Shore, a former gymnast, the mother of a former gymnast, and a former Gymnastics Canada board member. "We would like to see the same honourable action given to gymnastics.

"Because we believe that the abuse that (gymnasts) have suffered is also horrific, serious, widespread and preventable. One difference is most of these victims are children."

The federal government froze funding to Hockey Canada. A number of companies also suspended sponsorships as they awaited next steps.

Hockey Canada announced last week it was reopening a third-party investigation into the alleged incident and would commit to becoming a full signatory to the new Office of the Integrity Commissioner, which Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said was a requirement for the national federation to have its federal funding restored.

"My question to Minister St-Onge is how many more children need to be abused before gymnasts' calls for an independent third-party investigation is actioned," said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement founded to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators.

"It is mind-boggling but maybe not surprising that the Canadian government chooses only to respond to high-profile, big-money sports like hockey to give an appearance that they're tough on abuse across all sport. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Ann Peel, a lawyer and the first executive director of non-profit sports organization Right to Play, said abuse is "baked into the culture of gymnastics ... it seems to have become so normalized in gymnastics.

"And the government response has been to go where the light is strongest, like hockey," said Peel, a former race walker for Canada, who is helping Gymnastics for Change navigate the Canadian sport landscape. "And gymnastics, it's not a major sport in Canada, I guess? Or maybe they don't pay a lot of attention because it's voiceless children being abused?"

Gymnastics Canada announced last month it had hired McLaren Global Sport Solutions (MGSS) to do a "culture review," and analyze its national safe sport policies and procedures.

The news was met by disappointment by Gymnasts for Change, who said any investigation paid for by GymCan isn't independent.

"For GymCan to spend thousands and thousands of members' dollars on a 'culture review' that they control and dictate is incredibly disheartening," Shore said. "The risk of having our reality whitewashed by the NSO (national sport organization) is very concerning."

Spadafora is one of 11 former gymnasts known as the Bluewater Survivors -- Brubaker was coach and director of Bluewater Gymnastics in Sarnia, Ont. -- who pushed for a third-party investigation and testified in the 2020 disciplinary procedure with Gymnastics Canada.

In her public letter, she described Brubaker climbing into bed and pressing his body up against her, reaching his hand underneath her shirt and trying to talk her into exposing her breasts.

Brubaker was charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse. He was found not guilty, but GymCan launched its own investigation after numerous complaints and Brubaker was banned for life in 2021. His wife Elizabeth was suspended in 2019 through 2024.

The Brubakers have denied all allegations.

Spadafora said GymCan's investigation, which included numerous interviews and gruelling cross-examination, was re-victimizing.

"Even thinking about taking part in a cultural review, or something that is funded by GymCan, I go into panic attack, because of the process that they put us through for three-plus years ... that process broke me mentally and physically at times," she said.

Shore said that Gymnasts for Change, who originally sent an open letter to Sport Canada in April, recently sent a three-page document to the Sport Minister with details of abuse from gymnasts from across the country.

"There's comments in there that make your skin crawl," she said.

They've yet to have any direct communication with Minister St-Onge, Shore said.

They have heard back from the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which said it would consider putting gymnastics on the agenda.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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