A Bay Area attorney representing several sexual abuse victims in a lawsuit has demanded the removal of a renowned Pleasanton youth swim coach from USA Swimming in a recent letter publicly addressing the national organization's chief executive.
The open letter written by San Jose-based lawyer Robert Allard to Tim Hinchey, CEO of USA Swimming, in the latest attempt at reforming the sport in recent years, calls for banning eight coaches from around the country, including Steve Morsilli, longtime coach for the Pleasanton Seahawks, for allegedly failing to report complaints of abuse made against another coach.
"Having been deeply involved in the handling of sex abuse claims against USA Swimming for more than a decade, it is clear to us that there remains a deeply embedded culture within your organization which condones the criminal sexual behavior of coaches towards its underage athletes," Allard wrote. "This culture is similar to that of the Catholic Church, where a long-standing unofficial code enabled rampant sexual abuse by punishing those who report and rewarding those who remain silent. This must end, and it must end now."
Morsilli denied the allegations of failing to report abuse when contacted by the Weekly this week, saying he encouraged the victim contact authorities.
Last month, six women filed three separate lawsuits in Alameda County Superior Court alleging that USA Swimming systematically covered up sexual abuse they experienced by their coaches. The organization has yet to publicly respond, but Allard told the Weekly he's "optimistic" that Hinchey and others will take action.
"I believe him to be a good man, and I believe he wants to clean up the sport," Allard said. "I believe he wants to do the right thing, and I'm hopeful that he will adhere to these requirements if he truly wants to make positive change."
Allard is also seeking the removal of two other Tri-Valley coaches, Millie Nygren of Pleasanton and Clint Benton of Concord, for not reporting complaints about sexual abuse at the hands of former coach Andy King, who is serving a 40-year sentence for sexually abusing underage female swimmers. Morsilli, who is not named in any of the lawsuits, is also accused of failing to report complaints about King.
Former swimmer Katie Kelly, who swam on two teams coached by King in the late 1980s, told Vice in a 2014 interview that one afternoon King forced Kelly and a male teammate to kiss for 30 seconds in front of the entire team. King told her that if she complied, then the entire team could have the day off from practice. When Kelly refused, she said she was threatened with a harder workout than planned for the day.
In 2003, Kelly described the incident in an email to Pacific Swimming, one of several dozen regional governing bodies under USA Swimming. Morsilli, who was on Pacific Swimming's board, said he "encouraged her to report the issue" because he thought it was inappropriate but was not aware of King abusing any children.
"The kissing game letter did not describe Andy molesting any of the (team) members," Morsilli told the Weekly. "I had no knowledge of Andy molesting kids in the 1980s -- that's been stated under oath."
Morsilli contends that he "encouraged (Kelly) to report the issue" and "stepped up to help my swimmer in 2003." Six years later, though, Kelly said that Morsilli wrote her back and said her complaint to USA Swimming had been lost.
Former Seahawks swimmer and five-time state champion Miranda Heckman recently shared on social media that she was "groped", "scratched" and called "It" by teammates and coaches while with the Seahawks. The allegations have made waves in the swimming community both locally and beyond, with numerous past and present athletes weighing in on the matter.
Morsilli, who denies wrongdoing and strongly disputes any inference of sexual abuse, said his standards are high for swimmers but argued his coaching is far from abusive.
"Was she called 'It'? Yes. But by me, no," he said.
According to Morsilli, tensions between Heckman and her teammates often ran high. He described frequent clashes with other members, particularly if Heckman was defeated during practice, and said "it was impossible to get her situation handled."
"I'd sit down with the group and say tell me what she's doing," he added. "It's just a million little things. You can't put your finger on any one thing but they all add up."
Any complaints of abuse or mistreatment on the team brought to his attention were always addressed, Morsilli said. In one instance, Morsilli said he brought a complaint from Heckman that she was harassed by a competing swimmer from another team to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Heckman has not taken any legal action against Morsilli or USA Swimming but her attorney, Jim Wagstaffe, told the Weekly, "I believe any time a coach enables bullying ... then I think we're past the time when we need coaches like that."