A year after a popular Cobb wrestling coach was convicted in Pennsylvania of sexually abusing young athletes, Georgia wrestling officials and school leaders have offered no explanation about why Ron Gorman was allowed to continue coaching despite warnings he was a predator.
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published in February found that Pope High School officials and the state's top wrestling organization ignored two Cobb families that accused Gorman of targeting their sons.
Now, as Gorman gets ready to plead guilty to molestation charges in Cobb County superior court on Monday, the state’s top Olympic wrestling official, Team Georgia’s chairman Robert Horton, is under investigation for his handling of information implicating Gorman well before his arrest, the AJC has learned (UPDATE: Monday’s hearing was rescheduled to later this month).
Investigators are working under the auspices of a new national nonprofit charged with protecting athletes in the highly competitive world of Olympic sport, which is struggling to reform under the combined pressure of the #MeToo movement and the Larry Nassar scandal involving elite female gymnasts.
As head of the local affiliate of USA Wrestling, the sport’s national governing body, Horton is responsible for the safety of hundreds of young wrestlers across the state. Team Georgia certifies coaches and organizes the tournaments that qualify athletes for their chance at Olympic glory, not to mention the chance to catch the eye of college recruiters.
The AJC’s review of Gorman’s case found that in 2015 Horton, who became chairman that year, learned of an allegation reported to law enforcement in which a 15-year-old wrestler accused Gorman of soliciting him for sex. That same year, Gorman was elected to Horton’s board at Team Georgia wrestling.
Horton, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, previously had disputed that he knew the nature of the complaint, only that it involved Gorman and a minor.
The police report was one of two filed against Gorman by parents who also reported him to Pope High School. One of the parents became so concerned about the lack of attention being given to the allegations that she started looking into Gorman’s past herself.
That led her to Pennsylvania, where Gorman lived before moving to Cobb a decade ago. Her efforts caught the attention of state police there, who launched an investigation leading to Gorman’s arrest.
Gorman pleaded guilty last November to sexually abusing two Pennsylvania boys, one of whom he also assaulted when the boy was visiting him in Cobb. Gorman is expected to plead guilty in Marietta this week to charges related to that case, prosecutors said.
Investigators uncovered a pattern of abuse stretching back decades and credit the Cobb mother with bringing Gorman’s misdeeds to their attention.
“I don’t think that his behavior would have stopped had it not been for her,” Pennsylvania State Trooper Brian Noll told the AJC last year.
‘I had no reason to pursue’
When Gorman moved to Cobb in 2009, he quickly endeared himself to the tight-knit amateur wrestling community, many of whom were impressed by his claims of having been a champion college wrestler from Pennsylvania, a state known for its prowess in the sport.
He was an active father of four and volunteer with Pope High School’s junior wrestling program, where he first befriended the son of the Cobb woman who would eventually help put him behind bars.
Jaquelyn, whose name is being withheld to protect her son’s privacy, said at the time she was a single parent and grateful that Gorman appeared to take her son under his wing. But then in 2011, she found a sexually charged message Gorman had sent the boy, the 12, and immediately reported it to Pope officials.
According to a Cobb County police report, school officials said because Gorman was not an employee, all they could do was remove him as a coaching volunteer.
Despite his removal from the junior program, Gorman continued as a coach and official with Team Georgia. Gorman also founded the wrestling program at Life University.
In June 2015, a 15-year-old Pope wrestler said Gorman tried to give him alcohol and solicited him for sex during a weekend trip to Gorman’s vacation home on Lake Allatoona, according to the boy’s mother and a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department’s report. She said she informed coaches at Pope as well.
Blaine Hess, one of the coaches from Pope, told the AJC that he told Horton about the incident at the lake house shortly after it occurred. When first contacted by the AJC earlier this year, Horton denied knowledge of any inappropriate behavior by Gorman prior to his arrest in March, 2017.
When asked about the contradiction with Hess’s timeline, Horton changed his story. He said that Hess had told him about an incident, but not in detail.
“When I contacted Cherokee County, I was not allowed to get any specific details on the report because of it involving a minor,” Horton wrote in a Facebook message.
The report by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office is publicly available. The name of the alleged victim is redacted, but the report makes clear the seriousness of the allegation. Under “incident type,” it reads “child molested.”
Horton said when he was unable to obtain the report, he asked Gorman about it and he told Horton the incident involved college wrestlers drinking alcohol at his cabin, including one who was underage. It’s unclear why Horton didn’t follow up on Gorman’s apparent admission that minors had access to alcohol on his property.
“I had no reason to pursue this further,” Horton wrote.
Since the AJC’s reporting on Gorman’s case published in February, Horton’s actions have also come under scrutiny by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit tasked by Congress with preventing the abuse of athletes in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal.
USA Wrestling did not respond directly to questions about inconsistencies in Horton’s narrative. The organization said in a statement that SafeSport had assumed jurisdiction over the Horton case as of July.
“USA Wrestling awaits the final decision,” and “will enforce any sanctions they impose,” Dan Prochnow of USA Wrestling, wrote in an email.
SafeSport said it does not comment on “specific matters.”
Celeste McCrackin, whose son was coached by Gorman, believes Georgia wrestling officials failed by not removing Gorman sooner.
McCrackin recalled a 2013 tournament her son attended in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Gorman grew angry that the boy stayed with his parents rather than share a hotel with Gorman and the other wrestlers. She said Gorman told her son he might be a more successful wrestler, “If his parents weren’t around all the time.”
“The big question to Team Georgia would be, ‘Why was he allowed access to kids?’” McCrackin said.
‘A black hole’
It’s unclear how far the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which as a nonprofit does not have criminal jurisdiction, will go to investigate Georgia wrestling officials. The case represents an early test of a new system Congress sanctioned this year with the passing of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act.
Under the law, SafeSport is tasked with “preventing the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of amateur athletes” in the Olympic community. National governing bodies such as USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics and USA Wrestling oversee training of athletes starting from a young age all the way through the Olympic games.
SafeSport’s rules are broader than criminal law, and contain no statute of limitations. A person does not have to be convicted of a crime to be removed from his or her position in an Olympic organization. For example, failure to report suspected abuse is a misdemeanor crime in Georgia with a two-year statute of limitation, but the nonprofit can sanction someone for failure to report regardless of when the incident occurred.
Critics say the new system, however, lacks the independence and transparency of the courts. SafeSport was originally chartered by the U.S. Olympic Committee and spun off as an independent organization in March, 2017. More than half of its $6.4 million budget still comes from the Olympic committee and the governing bodies it is supposed to investigate.
While sanctions against individuals found guilty of violating SafeSport’s rules are posted publicly to its website, the investigative process is bound by confidential arbitration.
“SafeSport is like a black hole,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in child sex abuse prosecution. “When people are trying to figure out how to protect their children, they’re not getting answers.”
She’s concerned that governing bodies are using SafeSport’s involvement as an excuse not to take action. She said USA Wrestling is an independent organization with a legal obligation to remove anyone who represents a threat to athletes, with or without a SafeSport ruling.
SafeSport would not comment directly about the investigation involving Horton. In response to written questions, SafeSport defended its independence and the integrity of its investigations.
“The Center’s history is something that we’ve been very transparent about,” the statement read.
‘Turned a blind eye’
Jaquelyn, the Cobb mother who sparked the criminal investigation into Gorman, said she’s been frustrated by USA Wrestling and SafeSport’s response to her complaints about Team Georgia.
In February, she contacted USA Wrestling to request an investigation into Horton. She followed up several times in the ensuing months, emails show, but she said officials had little enthusiasm for pursuing the matter.
She said a SafeSport investigator finally called her in late October, several days after the AJC contacted the organization for this story.
Despite her disappointment in SafeSport, Jaquelyn said she intends to keep pushing to expose the individuals who enabled Gorman and reform how allegations of predatory behavior are treated. In addition to state wrestling officials, she blames administrators and coaches at Pope High School for allowing Gorman's continued access to children.
“So many people turned a blind eye,” she said. “I honestly believe that there are still additional victims out there and I want to be as active as I can in terms of helping those who may come forward.”
The Cobb County School District has refused to answer questions about the Gorman case and continue to stonewall parents who've raised concerns about the district's handling of this and other sex abuse cases.
A spokesperson for the district last week repeated an earlier assertion that the central office was not notified of Jaquelyn’s allegation, despite a police report indicating otherwise. That report says an investigator spoke to then Athletic Director Steven Craft and Mary Finlayson, the district’s former ethics director who worked in the central office.
Gorman, in his early 50s, faces at least 20 years in prison as result of his criminal convictions in Pennsylvania. SafeSport banned him for life last November — nine months after his arrest.
He’s not the only Georgia coach who has been sanctioned by SafeSport. The group’s website lists six other coaches or officials across several sports who were sanctioned this year. Five involved coaches banned permanently for a criminal disposition, including sexual misconduct or activity involving a minor.
RECOGNIZE THE SIGNS
Grooming is when a predator gradually escalates inappropriate behavior to desensitize a child and to test his or her boundaries and support network.
CHILDREN WHO ARE BEING GROOMED MIGHT:
—develop sudden mood swings and display rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal
—leave “clues” to provoke a discussion about sexual issues
—refuse to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child
—have money, toys or other gifts that didn’t come from you
ADULTS WHO ARE GROOMING MIGHT:
—make others uncomfortable by ignoring social, emotional or physical boundaries
—refuse to let a child set his or her own limits and may use teasing or belittling language to keep a child from setting a limit
—have secret interactions with teens or children (such as sharing alcohol or pornography)
—spend excessive time emailing, text messaging or calling children or youth
*SOURCE: STOP IT NOW