Ontario gymnastics clubs should have known about the coaches’ investigation, says one critic
Allegations against a gymnastics coach who has faced numerous counts of sexual assault and other sex offenses were first brought before Gymnastics Ontario in October 2021, some 16 months before he was charged and the public informed.
Ben Cooper, 27, of Toronto, faces multiple indictments involving teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 that spanned eight years between 2014 and 2022.
Cooper was employed at gyms in Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario until 2021, but Ottawa Police say the sex offenses continued into 2022 and occurred during his coaching duties and after hours.
None of the allegations against Cooper were proven in court.
Gymnastics Ontario CEO Dave Sandford said they were first notified of allegations against Cooper in October 2021, a month after he last worked at Trillium Gymnastics in Kingston, Ontario.
After formal complaints were filed in March 2022, Gymnastics Ontario launched its own investigation in April 2022 and informed Cooper that he had since been suspended from coaching.
Sandford says police were notified later that month.
“We had two complainants who participated in our disciplinary complaints process. Around the same time the announcement was made, two other people came forward with very serious allegations, prompting me to contact the Ottawa Police Department,” Sandford told CBC.
While Trillium and the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre, where Cooper trained from 2014 to 2019, were made aware of the investigation and the suspension, other clubs were not informed.
“In any trial, you want to maintain integrity and confidentiality for both the victims and the complainants and/or the defendant,” he said.
Sandford said Gymnastics Ontario monitored Cooper through its membership database and in conversations with local clubs “just to make sure he wasn’t actively training.”
Sandford said he didn’t know how serious the allegations were until police this week announced Cooper’s arrest.
A former gymnast and co-founder of an advocacy group dedicated to fighting abuse in sport says it’s worrying that other Ontario clubs have not been notified of the allegations, even after an internal or police investigation was launched.
But Gymnasts for Change Canada’s Kim Shore says even when allegations are made, they are often not put together, which could show an emerging pattern of behavior, she said.
“This level of secrecy built into the policies of many of these provincial organizations is really there to protect the abuser. It’s not helping the kids,” Shore said.
The charges come just months after a CBC investigation showed Gymnastics Canada had promoted a coach to one of the highest positions within the organization despite complaints of inappropriate behavior involving female coaches and gymnasts.
Other sports, such as hockey and youth organizations, have grappled with the fallout from revelations about decades of abuse within their ranks.
But Shore said the problem runs just as deep in her sport and isn’t limited to sexual abuse.
“Verbal, emotional and psychological abuse is rampant,” she said, which puts children in a vulnerable position.
“This is not an isolated case,” Shore said. “I think it’s a systemic problem. I think there is a whisper network that has been covering up this abuse at the risk of innocent young children just trying to pursue an activity that brings them joy.”
She says the allegations in this case date back nearly a decade with no evidence an adult stepping forward is worrying.
“Our policies and our practices are failing our children,” she said.
Ottawa club is unaware of the extent of the allegations
The Ottawa Gymnastics Center (OGC) confirmed that Cooper was employed at the club from 2014 to 2019 and trained at both a recreational and competitive level and may have worked with children as young as five.
The club said it was made aware of Gymnastics Ontario’s internal investigation but was unaware of the extent of the allegations.
“We didn’t know anything,” said Mike Vieira, the club’s interim general manager, of allegations of sex crimes.
This level of secrecy built into the policies of many of these provincial organizations is really there to protect the abuser. – Kim Shore, Gymnasts for Change Canada
He acknowledged that like other sports, gymnastics has faced significant controversy over abuse in sport, but believes things are changing.
“This sport, especially the whisper culture kind of thing, the Old Boys Club, whatever you want to call it, is being dismantled,” he said. “It’s not like…we’re coming over [coaches] around when people just keep quiet and sweep things under the rug or something.”
Vieira said every coach has to undergo a “extensive” screening process and there are rules – which were in place back in 2014 – to ensure there are always two adults from two different programs on duty.
“We turned, I think, every stone we could have back then and we continue to do that. It’s devastating, like we’re really trying to make sure our place is a safe place and we thought it was,” he said.
CBC has made multiple attempts to reach Trillium Gymnastics but has received no response.