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Ripken foundation hosts summit on preventing abuse of child athletes

— As Cal Ripken Jr. watched the news unfold of the sexual abuse committed by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University, he decided to take on the chief question before the sporting community: "What can we do to make kids safer?"

The Orioles Hall of Famer enlisted his foundation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to draft guidelines using the research and input of leading sports scientists, pediatricians and advocates for screening coaches and volunteers. The goal is to empower child athletes and expose predators.

The abuse prevention standards will be finalized — and available at Safetocompete.org — in about a week, after a two-day summit that started Tuesday in Alexandria.

Several high-profile cases of alleged child sexual abuse have emerged in the region. Rick Curl, the founder of the Curl-Burke Swim Club in Washington, was charged last year with abusing an athlete in the 1980s, and Olympic ice skating coach Genrikh Sretenski was arrested in Howard County last September.

"This is a reaction for us to the realities of dealing with kids and making sure that any person that comes in contact to help a kid, they've been screened, they've been looked at and we've ensured the kids' safety," Ripken said in an interview. "You can't sit back there and do nothing."

Ripken said his action is also out of necessity as the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, named for his late father and longtime Orioles coach and manager, continues to grow and serve more children. The Baltimore-based organization used baseball and softball programs to reach more than 154,000 children and teens in 47 states last year.

"We knew we were dealing with kids and that we had to do something within our organization, within our control … as we start to get bigger and expand," Ripken said. "I can't speak as an expert or an authority on the matter. I just know how it affects us and what we want to do to help."

Big Brothers Big Sisters, USA Swimming and Special Olympics were among the more than 50 groups that participated in the summit.

John Walsh, host and co-founder of "America's Most Wanted," delivered a keynote address to inspire the organizations to do all they can to protect the millions of American boys and girls who participate each day in sports.

"Your groups are the SWAT team for this," Walsh said.

The summit also featured child sexual abuse survivors, retired Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann and onetime U.S. and Canadian hockey star Sheldon Kennedy.

Dr. Sharon Cooper, a forensic pediatrician, described to the 100 individuals at the invitation-only summit some of the tactics that abusers use on their victims, including acting in the guise of favoritism or befriending the victim's parents to gain trust.

She also opened up the nearly 180-page "Grooming Guide" available to a network of pedophiles and child abusers online. In it, the predators instruct one another on how to establish sports groups and select victims.

"'This might be the easiest way to establish an activity group, if your community lacks football or other sports groups for kids and I think most parents would love to see it happening,'" Cooper said quoting the guide. "'This might be the most important information in this whole chapter: It doesn't matter how or where you want to find children, but sad and lonely children are the children you want to look for.'"

Steve Salem, president of the Ripken foundation, said that the guidelines to prevent abuse will provide training and Internet links to discounted criminal history searches.

"When something like the Jerry Sandusky case hits, we all say, 'Thank God that wasn't us. I hope it won't be us tomorrow.' That's what most organizations do, that's their prevention policy. No, it's not enough," he said.

"The reality is that nonprofits run on shoestring budgets. Background screening people, reference checking is expensive. They can't afford it. ... You have the organizations scared to death."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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