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Parents, beware of sexual abuse that happens in plain sight

Getty Images/Jupiterimages
Getty Images/Jupiterimages

The cheerleading community was shaken by the news that a former California coach of a very reputable local training facility was charged with molesting many girls, some as young as 11 years old.  The allegations are based on when Erick Joseph Kristianson was on staff at Magic All Stars Cheer from 2002 to 2008 but only surfaced in 2022 when one victim saw on TV that Kristianson was arrested for similar charges in Florida. The gym coincidentally closed this month for reasons claimed to be unrelated.  

The owners of the gym where Kristianson worked in Orange County are wonderful people, solid Christians. I would like to believe they knew nothing of his behavior, but could they have been too trusting? Was it possible they overlooked the warning signs? 

The Orange County DA pointed out the most insidious nature of crimes of child abuse by folks like Kristianson, who also worked at Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo.  “He was hiding in plain sight as he assaulted girl after girl, thinking he would never be caught because they trusted him as a coach.” Therein lies the problem — trust. 

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This case reminded me of the horrible events surrounding the team doctor for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, who also worked for years at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.  Since my daughter was a gymnast at the time the scandal broke, I followed the case closely. In that case, it literally took decades before decisive action was taken against Dr. Larry Nassar.  He sexually assaulted and abused hundreds of young athletes despite numerous allegations and reports of abuse by the students. Their concerns were dismissed by other coaches, school administrators, and even law enforcement until the allegations were laid out in great detail through a local Indiana news report. “Some allegations were allowed to linger for years before any action was taken, leaving young victims under the supervision of sexual predators,” the report stated.

Olympian gold medalist and victim of Dr. Nassar, Simone Biles, testified for the Senate and blamed a system that “enabled and perpetrated his abuse.”  Most people involved knew what he was doing long before it became public, and most of them did absolutely nothing to stop it.

These two tragedies are not isolated incidents. Last year a federal lawsuit was filed against a competitive cheer gym and its associates for sexually abusing over 100 teens, transporting them across state lines for sexual exploitation. Like the USA gymnastics case with Nassar, the cheer oversight body known as Varsity is named in the suit for failing to intervene.

Unfortunately, giving someone a title like “coach, doctor, or even pastor” implies good character or trustworthiness, which can make people naive to their potential for doing serious harm. We want to believe in the inherent goodness of people, a presumption of innocence, and that we are not too judgmental. These are the things we tell ourselves to ignore our instincts or avoid “making trouble.”

Since my daughter was a gymnast and now a cheerleader, these scandals strike very close to home. Unfortunately, I think these two sports may have a susceptibility to abuse that is unique. Both sports can have repeated, continuous direct physical contact between the kids and their coaches and/or doctors. As they advance in the sport, the coaches provide help “spotting” for the girls, which has them touching their back side as well as lifting them at their waist and by the legs. Back pain is very common, so massage therapy is often the remedy. These practices can lead to inappropriate touching, which may confuse young girls if not kept under careful watch.

We had an experience at my daughter’s former middle school where one of the male cheer coaches was spotting certain girls in a way that made them very uncomfortable. My daughter told me about it and when I talked with the others, they all called him a “perv.”  When I brought it up with the athletic director and other parents, it was quickly dismissed. The excuse was he was a “well-respected” coach, had been around the district “forever,” and they trusted him. No action was taken, so I never left my daughter alone at practice again. I sat and watched every session because I wanted her to know that I would protect her if no one else would.

Coaches can also inflict serious emotional abuse on teens. Though often harder to detect, research suggests “emotional abuse by coaches can includehumiliating, shouting, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating, threatening, and ignoring. These forms of abuse can be subtle and hidden in accepted coaching practice.” Parents end up enabling this treatment simply because it’s commonplace or their desire to have the child succeed in sports. Inspiring drive and discipline in young athletes can be a positive influence in their lives. However, berating and making a child feel inferior or incapable of progress can have long-term debilitating effects on their psychological well-being. The tongue can bring death or life. No parent should tolerate anyone speaking death over our children. 

These despicable practices against vulnerable children do provide some important lessons for families. First, our children should be trained to recognize abuse. They should know what unacceptable behavior from ANY adult looks like. As parents, we need to validate their instincts and report suspicious behavior even if you are alone in your concerns. Every case begins with one courageous victim. Secondly, trust is earned, it doesn’t just come with a title. In law enforcement, we call this behavior situation awareness. It teaches us to pay attention to details, observe, listen intently, and then respond. The safety of your child may be at stake.

Finally, reporting suspicion doesn’t make us bad Christians. Our community is justifiably concerned about being open-hearted, non-judgmental, and compassionate. These are wonderful qualities, but they shouldn’t make us oblivious to wrongdoing. 

As we learned in the battle against sexualized education in our schools, parents are not powerless. We are the first line of defense for our children when we stay aware, informed, and engaged. 

Hedieh Mirahmadi was a devout Muslim for two decades working in the field of national security before she experienced the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and has a new passion for sharing the Gospel.  She dedicates herself full-time to Resurrect Ministry, an online resource that harnesses the power of the Internet to make salvation through Christ available to people of all nations, and her daily podcast

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