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Child-molesting coaches and naked swimming: don't tell me about the good old days

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Practice just started for the fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team I’m coaching, and I’m fortunate enough to have as assistants two parents who have served as head and assistant coaches in the same league. I said they still needed to fill out the form so the Alsip (Ill.) Park District could check if they’re child molesters, and they nodded their heads. They know the drill.

If you’ve read my headline grabs lately, you might think: why do organizations bother to do this? There’s the gymnastics coach in Florida, the football coach in Washington and the softball coach in Oklahoma among a stream of arrests of youth sports authority figures arrested for sex crimes against the very children they are supposed to be training. It’s enough to make you wonder if, in America, we should be like Great Britain, making everyone pay to be on a Not A Sex Offender List in order to work with children. Heck, some of the vile search terms people use to get to this site makes you want to pour bleach on the Internet.

However, not that it necessarily will make you feel any better, your child is far, far, far, far, far, far, far safer on a sports team than he or should be with the past. That’s because even a cursory look at the local police files and an awareness that child perverts might want to be, you know, around children is well ahead of what like was like when, say, my 39-year-old self was playing first base in the North Muskegon, Mich., Little League in the early 1980s. At least now, an allegation can lead to arrest, and some of the weirder stuff that was pulled without anyone batting an eyelash is no longer looked at as normal.

Former NHL Stanley Cup hoister Theoron Fleury recently reminded us of this when he said in his recent book that he was a molestation victim of junior hockey coach Graham James, who has already served time regarding his conduct toward former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and other children he coached. And we got another reminder with the continuing saga of the late Philip Foglietta and the trail of destruction he left in a long career as football coach at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On Oct. 26, seven alumni filed a lawsuit against the school, saying it knew that Foglietta abused “dozens, if not hundreds of boys” during his tenure from 1966-91, and condoned his behavior because he was a successful football coach and raised a substantial amount of money for the private school. A 2005 lawsuit filed by an alumnus was dismissed because the victim did not file it within five years of turning 18. By suing based on a conspiracy, there are no statute of limitations issues.

If you read the victim testimonials on the site of the White Tower Healing Foundation, dedicated to serving the children Foglietta abused — and I would recommend a strong stomach if you do — you can see the coach was the classic molester. He picked out kids from troubled homes, or who were in a precarious situation with the school, or had self-esteem issues, or all those. He started with little touches here and there before graduating to more rank abuse. He sent the message — even if he didn’t have to say it — that any child who accused him of doing wrong would never be believed.

In short, it’s the sort of conduct that has the Catholic church and its members in knots, the classic tale of how an authority figure abused his power and influence to abuse children, destroying young lives in the process.

Why aren’t I hedging and saying that Foglietta was an alleged molester, given he was never convicted of a crime? Because the school in 2002 sent a letter to alumni acknowledging that “a former faculty member/coach” had likely molested children at the school. Also, because Foglietta died the year before that letter was written. The evidence is overwhelming against Foglietta, and there’s also no libeling the dead, you know.

According to the White Tower Healing Foundation, the school got its first complaint against Foglietta in 1972 — so it took 30 years for Poly Prep to cop to what was going on.

But, hey, who in 1972 would believe something like that? Especially in a time when a lot of schools made their kids take swimming lessons in the nude?

Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times for two days, Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, has mined columns about this weird, weird practice, well-known, at least in Chicago, to anyone over the age of 50. At some schools, the boys had to strip naked to swim up until the early 1980s. Sheesh, it’s traumatic enough for most boys to have to change in front of each in the lockerroom. Who the hell thought having every single boy naked for an hour in a cold pool was a great idea?

Brown explains why people thought that was a great idea:

[Chicago radio host Garry] Meier said he and his classmates were given the explanation that school officials didn’t want them clogging up the pool with sand from their bathing trunks. As someone who didn’t frequent the beach, Meier found that to be one of many explanations he’s heard through the years that don’t hold water.

At Thornton High School in south suburban Harvey, former athletic director Ed Fredette said it was just a matter of not wanting to deal with the logistics and expense of providing clean swimsuits to every boy.

“It was a total embarrassment. It really was for years,” Fredette said, meaning for all concerned, not just the swimmers. Fredette said he finally got the school to provide boys with swimsuits, which had been the practice all along for girls.

Still, he said he never heard a complaint at the time from students or parents.

“You think we could do that today? No way, Dick Tracy,” said Fredette, now 73 and living in Alabama.

So while there are still plenty of coaches who get in trouble for abusing children, it’s not nearly as bad and strange as it was in the good old days. I think I see you all nodding your heads. You know the drill.

Written by rkcookjr

October 28, 2009 at 9:41 pm

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