Ontario gymnastics clubs should have known about coach investigation, critic says
Allegations against a gymnastics coach facing numerous counts of sexual assault and other sexual offences were first brought before Gymnastics Ontario in October 2021, some 16 months before he was charged and the public was informed.
Ben Cooper, 27, of Toronto, faces multiple charges involving teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 that spanned eight years between 2014 and 2022.
Cooper was employed with gyms in both Ottawa and Kingston, Ont., until 2021, but Ottawa police allege the sexual offences continued into 2022 and took place during his coaching duties and after hours.
None of the allegations against Cooper has been proven in court.
Gymnastics Ontario CEO Dave Sandford said they were first informed about allegations against Cooper in October 2021, a month after he last worked at Trillium Gymnastics in Kingston, Ont.
After formal complaints were launched in March 2022, Gymnastics Ontario launched their own investigation in April 2022 and notified Cooper he was suspended from coaching in the interim.
Sandford says police were notified that same month.
"We had two complainants participating in our disciplinary complaints process. At around the same time as when the announcement was made, two other individuals came forward with very serious allegations, at which point I reached out to Ottawa police," Sandford told CBC.
While Trillium and the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre, where Cooper coached from 2014 to 2019, were made aware of the investigation and the suspension, other clubs were not informed.
"In any process you want to maintain the integrity and the confidentiality of it both for the victims or the complainants and or the respondent," he said.
Sandford said Gymnastics Ontario monitored Cooper through its membership database and in conversations with local clubs "to just ensure that he was not actively coaching."
Sandford said he didn't know just how serious the allegations were until police announced Cooper's arrest this week.
A former gymnast and co-founder of an advocacy group that works to combat abuse in the sport says it's troubling other Ontario clubs weren't informed of the allegations, even after an internal or police investigation was launched.
But Kim Shore with Gymnasts for Change Canada says even when allegations are brought forward, they are often not compiled, which could show a pattern of behaviour emerging, she said.
"This level of secrecy that's built into the policies of many of these provincial organizations really functions to keep the abuser protected. It does not help the children," Shore said.
The charges come just months after a CBC investigation showed Gymnastics Canada promoted a coach to one of the highest positions within the organization, despite complaints alleging inappropriate behaviour, involving female coaches and gymnasts.
Other sports like hockey and youth organizations have been dealing with the fallout of revelations of decades of abuses within their ranks.
But Shore said the problem is just as deep in her sport and aren't limited to sexual abuse.
"Verbal, emotional and psychological abuse are rampant," she said, which leaves children in a vulnerable position.
"This is not isolated," said Shore. "I think this is a systemic issue. I think there is a whisper network that has been covering these abuses up at the peril of young children who are innocent and only trying to pursue an activity that brings them joy."
She says that the allegations in this case go back nearly a decade, without evidence of an adult stepping forward, is concerning.
"Our policies and our practices are failing our kids," she said.
Ottawa club not aware of extent of allegations
The Ottawa Gymnastics Centre (OGC) acknowledged Cooper was employed at the club from 2014 to 2019, coaching both at the recreational and competitive level, possibly working with children as young as five.
The club says it was made aware of the Gymnastics Ontario internal investigation but it wasn't aware of the extent of the allegations.
"We didn't know," said Mike Vieira, the club's interim executive director, about any allegations of sexual offences.
This level of secrecy that's built into the policies of many of these provincial organizations really functions to keep the abuser protected. - Kim Shore, Gymnasts for Change Canada
He acknowledged how gymnastics has faced a significant amount of controversy, like other sports, about abuse in the sport, but feels things are changing.
"This sport, specifically the sort of whisper culture, the old boys club, however you want to call it, is being dismantled," he said. "It's not like ... we're passing [coaches] around if people are just hushing and things under the rug or anything like that."
Vieira said every coach has to undergo an "exhaustive" screening process and there are rules in place — and were in place back in 2014 — that ensure two adults from two different programs are always on duty.
"We turned, I think every stone that we could have at the time and we continue to do that. It's devastating, like we really really try to make sure that our place is a safe space and we thought it was," he said.
CBC has made multiple efforts to reach out to Trillium Gymnastics but has not heard back.