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UM says it alerted AG's office about swim coach's abuse of girl

Abusive BehaviorJustice SystemUniversity of Maryland, College ParkPennsylvania Statue University Sexual Abuse Scandal (2012)Cornell University

The University of Maryland says it alerted the state attorney general nearly 25 years ago that the school's head swimming coach had acknowledged sexually abusing a girl at his private club, but he was not charged until last year.

Rick Curl, founder of Washington's pre-eminent Curl-Burke Swim Club, resigned his position at College Park in August 1988 after the parents of the teenage victim gave the university a letter signed by Curl that acknowledged the abuse. Curl and the parents entered into a legal settlement around that time.

Curl was sentenced this week to seven years in prison.

A university spokesman said Friday that officials demanded Curl's immediate resignation and then alerted and briefed an assistant attorney general by phone on Sept. 7, 1988. The university did not provide any documentation of the phone call, but officials said they were able to dig up "notes" about the call and Curl's letter of resignation.

J. Joseph Curran Jr., attorney general at the time, and his assistant for higher education matters, James J. Mingle, said they had no recollection of the matter.

"Based on an internal review, we believe the University of Maryland handled this matter responsibly 25 years ago," Brian Ullmann, an assistant vice president at the university, said in a statement.

"Upon learning of the improper relationship, university officials demanded the resignation of Mr. Curl and notified and briefed the Attorney General's office. The safety and well being of our campus community remains a university priority."

However, Mingle said in an email, "I am confident I would remember such an issue regarding a coach's sexual abuse."

Curl, 63, pleaded guilty in February to abusing Kelley Currin beginning shortly before she turned 13 until she was 17. Currin, now 43, had Olympic aspirations and was coached by Curl at his swim club. She had no ties to the University of Maryland.

Reporting standards for child sexual abuse was the subject of much debate at the time because the General Assembly passed a law in 1987 that greatly expanded reporting requirements, said Joanne Suder, a Baltimore attorney who specializes in sex abuse cases.

The issue rose to new significance in recent years after the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University involving longtime football coach Jerry Sandusky was uncovered.

Despite a spotlight on abuse between coaches and elite child athletes in recent decades, questions remain about who is responsible for reporting improper behavior, to whom such reports should be made and when, Suder said. To this day, some states have no reporting requirements, she said.

"There is no question that the university, which stands in a parental position, would have had a duty at that time" to alert authorities and investigate the coach, Suder said. "Even before the statute … they had a duty to protect. There has always been a duty to protect."

The university did not respond to questions about whether officials conducted an internal investigation of Curl, who was hired as the head swim coach in August 1987. Ullmann said Saturday that records on whether officials had notified police or conducted an internal investigation were not imediately available. When Curl left the university, he went back to coaching at his private club.

Curl, a father of six from Vienna, Va., was charged in October 2012. He was banned for life by USA Swimming a month earlier.

Currin, a mother of four and a seventh-grade science teacher near Dallas, said she came forward after so many years to fight a culture in competitive swimming that "protects predator coaches." Currin and her parents had entered into a legal settlement with Curl, who paid them $150,000 in exchange for their promise not to speak publicly.

USA Swimming contacted her in recent years to request information about the abuse, Currin said. She said she immediately faxed them the settlement that Curl had signed. The organization said in an open letter Friday it launched its investigation into Curl based on a tip that allowed them to identify Currin in April 2012.

Currin said she came forward publicly only after she saw Curl on television honored with a front-row seat at the Olympic trials.

"That was it. I didn't care about consequences or what could happen to me," she said.

Ed Vasquez, a California-based attorney for Currin, commended the University of Maryland for what he called quick and decisive action. Vasquez said Congress should investigate USA Swimming to determine what more it should have done to protect child athletes.

Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming director, said the organization has "the highest levels of compassion and concern for abuse victims, but we also must adhere to deliberative processes for those being accused of inappropriate conduct." He highlighted the work of the organization to keep child athletes safe with the use of background checks, pre-employment screening, training and education.

Curran, Maryland's longtime attorney general, said he is confident that if he had learned of the abuse, he would remember. Mingle, the assistant attorney general at the time who now serves as counsel at Cornell University, said he, too, is sure he would not have forgotten such a significant situation.

Curran said that, under normal operating procedure, the attorney general's office would have reported such an incident to the local state's attorney for prosecution. The state's top prosecutor does have a criminal investigation unit, but attorneys there primarily handle fraud and bribery cases.

"That is how it would normally work," Curran said.

Multiple officials with the state's attorney's office in Montgomery County, which prosecuted Curl because the abuse of Currin took place there, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Curran, who retired in 2007 after a nearly 50-year political career, said he wouldn't find it unusual that a university would turn to the attorney general's office for guidance on a legal matter, because that office serves as top counsel to government agencies.

"Some of the most vulnerable in our population are young people who find themselves either in the custody of or being taught by or trained by those who are not doing the right thing," Curran said. "Protecting the most vulnerable among us has got to be a top priority for anyone in law enforcement."

The university declined to provide Curl's resignation letter, citing personnel confidentiality. Ullmann, the spokesman, said he had no knowledge of any written documentation from the attorney general's office in response to the university's briefing, and he didn't believe any records existed.

Information from the attorney general's office, which was closed Friday, wasn't immediately available.

Thomas Kelly, an attorney for Curl, said he had no knowledge of the actions the university took after Currin's parents alerted officials to the abuse. Curl was remanded to custody on Thursday after his sentencing hearing, and Kelly said he hasn't spoken to his client since.

"It's a tragic set of circumstances for everyone involved," he said. "There are no winners."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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