The president and CEO of USA Gymnastics resigned on Thursday, one week after officials within the U.S. Olympic Committee called for his departure as a result of the governing body's handling of a widening sexual abuse scandal.
Steve Penny, who led the federation since 2005, had been facing increased criticism since August for not doing enough to protect gymnasts from sexual abuse or responding to allegations against coaches appropriately or quickly enough.
"The Board believes this change in leadership will help USA Gymnastics face its current challenges and implement solutions to move the organization forward in promoting a safe environment for its athletes at all levels," USA Gymnastics chairman Paul Parilla said in a statement.
The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, has reported more than 360 cases in which gymnasts have accused coaches of sexual transgressions over 20 years. More than 80 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, who was the national team physician from 1996 to 2015.
Nassar faces three state charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person younger than 13 in Michigan and two federal charges related to child pornography.
Late last month, Nassar was arraigned in Ingham County (Mich.) on 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and 14 lesser included alternative charges of third-degree criminal sexual conduct stemming from his 20 years at Michigan State.
The school is being sued by at least 40 women and girls. USA Gymnastics faces at least four lawsuits, three of which name Penny as a defendant.
"It has been heartbreaking to learn of instances of abuse and it sickens me that young athletes would be exploited in such a manner," Penny said in a statement issued by USA Gymnastics. "My decision to step aside as CEO is solely to support the best interests of USA Gymnastics at this time"
On March, 8, USA TODAY Sports reported, citing two U.S. Olympic officials, that a group within the USOC was seeking Penny's resignation. USA Gymnastics responded with a statement attributed to Parilla, officers Jay Binder and Bitsy Kelley and Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around title, in which they supported Penny. They praised Penny as “among the strongest advocates for our athletes,” saying he had strengthened the federation’s policies and reported suspected abuse to law enforcement authorities himself.
USOC chairman Larry Probst released a statement Thursday addressing Penny's departure. "Today's announcement will hopefully allow USA Gymnastics to shift its attention to the future with a secure environment for its athletes and continued success in competition.”
USA Gymnastics is also awaiting review of its policies and procedures by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor.
"USA Gymnastics and the entire gymnastics community must work together to focus on keeping athletes safe," Parilla said Thursday. "We believe Ms. Daniels’ recommendations will identify areas where we can strengthen and refine how we handle sexual misconduct as an organization, expand our efforts to educate the entire community, including parents and athletes, about what to watch for and what to do if they suspect abuse is happening."
Results of Daniels' review are expected in the second quarter. But the USOC wanted more immediate action.
On March 9, its board met and reached what Probst called a “consensus point of view” though he and CEO Scott Blackmun declined to share it publicly until USA Gymnastics responded. The USOC did not immediately issue a reaction.
The USOC had no power to fire Penny. But it could have withheld funding to the federation or, in the most extreme case, decertified it as the sport’s national governing body.
Asked why the USOC wanted Penny out while other heads of federations with abuse scandals had been allowed to stay on, Blackmun said, “The whole subject of sexual assault and safe sport has obviously been getting a significant amount of increased coverage. Obviously the center point of that right now is around USA Gymnastics. We felt it was appropriate to talk about the subject of safe sport broadly and it’s certainly difficult to do without a specific discussion around gymnastics.
Added Probst, “We have a responsibility as stewards of the Olympic movement in the United States.”
The USOC initially backed Penny. After the Star’s first report in August, CEO Scott Blackmun said the USOC would not investigate USA Gymnastics and said the federation had been one for the strongest proponents for abuse policies.
But the furor only grew with the accusations against Nassar, including a lawsuit by Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher. While it was USA Gymnastics that turned Nassar in to the FBI, the timing of its report has raised eyebrows.
USA Gymnastics initially said it “immediately” reported Nassar to the FBI after an athlete expressed concern in 2015. But following a Wall Street Journal report last month, USA Gymnastics acknowledged it conducted its own investigation before reporting Nassar five weeks later and firing him in July 2015.
The scandal is the latest among Olympic sports governing bodies, and has threatened to engulf the USOC at a time when it is promoting Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The Games would be the first on U.S. soil since 2002.
On March 3, a letter from the previous president of USA Gymnastics resurfaced in which he warned USOC officials in 1999 that the Olympic movement was failing to protect children. The USOC did not enact sweeping changes to how it addressed sexual abuse, including mandatory background checks, until 2014, four years after a widespread sexual abuse scandal in swimming.
On March 6, 16 U.S. Senators proposed legislation that would make it a federal crime to not immediately report sexual abuse allegations to authorities.
The Americans have won 100 medals at the Olympics and world championships since Penny took over in April 2005, and the women have emerged as the world’s dominant team. The United States has won the last two team titles at the Olympics, as well as the last four all-around titles.