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COLUMN ONE : When a Coach Crosses the Line : America's gymnastics federation is leading a tough campaign to reduce the potential for sex abuse in a sport that often involves close contact.

May 20, 1995|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rate of repeated offenses is high among child molesters, with one study estimating recidivism at 40%. Pedophiles cannot be cured, experts say, only controlled. Under conditions of probation, abusers are ordered by the courts to stay away from children, but those orders are not always followed.

William Permenter was a health spa instructor when he was arrested for fondling a teen-age girl. He pleaded guilty April 15, 1985, and served 90 days in jail before beginning his five-year probation period. But six months after his release, he was hired by the Duval County, Fla., Community Education program to teach gymnastics.

"It wasn't great investigative work on my part," said Brian O'Neill, Permenter's probation officer in Jacksonville, Fla., where the offense was committed. "I got a tip and looked in the [course] catalogue and there's his name; it was unbelievable. He full well knew he wasn't supposed to be around children, the conditions of his probation [five years] were fully explained to him."

Permenter was sent back to jail for a year, although he could have received 15 years for his felony conviction.

Many sex offenders plea bargain for a reduced sentence, which also precludes the victim from testifying.

Brian Coughlan, a gymnastics, swimming and soccer coach in Bethesda, Md., was indicted last year on 32 counts of child abuse involving 14 children.

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Coughlan--who was not a member of USA Gymnastics--later pleaded guilty to six counts of child abuse involving three children--a gymnast and two soccer players. He was sentenced this month to 2 1/2 years in prison. But his sentencing was delayed more than a year after he was arrested in Bethesda, in part because charges surfaced of a sex offense in another county involving an elementary schoolchild. Coughlan was a teacher there.

In interviews with detectives, Coughlan, 37, admitted that since he was 17 he has had a problem touching children. He said he would fondle them over their clothing. The fondling, Coughlan said, was so subtle that some of the children would not be aware it was happening.

But there were children who not only noticed, but told. A 5-year-old girl at the Bethesda YMCA complained that Coughlan had fondled her as she sat on his lap during swim class. After notifying police of the complaint, a YMCA official walked down to the building where Coughlan was teaching gymnastics and observed him through a window, court documents say. Shirley Derrick later told police that she saw Coughlan spotting boys doing handstands by placing one hand on their waists and the other over their crotches.

Meanwhile, the mother of a 5-year-old soccer player called police after her son complained twice about Coughlan.

The mother laments that she did not take her son out of the program earlier--Coughlan later admitted to fondling her son at least once a week. "You really feel alone and embarrassed and there is no way to be 100% sure that you are not ruining the life of an innocent man," she said. "We [eventually] had that assurance because Brian confessed, but there were some parents who refused to believe that such a lovely person could do these things."

She blames those who hired Coughlan, saying that had his references been checked, his past would have emerged. But successful background checks rely on victims finding the courage to tell their stories.

"I remember when things slowed down with me, my coach just went on to the next kid," said the former national team gymnast, now 30.

"I remember one day, when I was a junior in high school, I took the night off and didn't go to practice. I remember going down to the gym with some friends. [The coach's] car was there and it was late. I looked through the keyhole and I saw him and this kid jumping on the trampoline together in the nude. I got flustered and said to my friends, 'Let's go.' "

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When he was 13, the gymnast said he tried to tell a group of coaches that he was being molested. He was so afraid, he says, that he cannot even call it a conversation. But he does remember that it was during the summer, and it was time for him to leave the junior national training center and go back home. He told these coaches that he did not want to go back because his coach touched him all the time. That's all he said, and nobody else said anything. It was never brought up again. "Nobody cared," he said.

That changed 11 years later, when USA Gymnastics started to crack down on abuse. Now, the gymnast speaks freely.

"Where I suffered from this was a tremendous insecurity and lack of confidence," he said. "I thought I was ugly, grotesque, I felt dirty. The emotional game that goes on is so overwhelming, I felt guilty if I thought anything bad about my coach, he had done so much for me.

"Now I talk with my son about this stuff all the time and tell my story to groups of children. Hopefully, by me standing up there in a USA jacket, it will help give them the strength to come up."

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