A French Olympic pairs skater has been accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old American figure skater he met at a rink near Tampa, who was also harassed by three coaches who tried to cover up the misconduct, according to explosive new claims.
Coaches John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, who are married to each other, tried to prevent the victim’s family from reporting alleged abuse committed by Morgan Cipres in 2017, according to emails from the girl’s family that were obtained by USA Today. They also allegedly told the girl that “men have their needs.”
The U.S. Center for SafeSport is looking into the allegations.
The alleged cover-up attempt took place as Cipres was preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the newspaper reported.
Cipres and partner Vanessa James would place fifth in their event at the Games.
It is alleged that Cipres sent two photos of his penis to the girl on Instagram on Dec. 3, 2017. Both practiced at the same rink in Wesley Chapel, Fla., just north of Tampa.
Vinny Dispenza, another coach, allegedly told the victim and another underage girl to message Cipres asking him to send the photos to them in exchange for pizza from Dispenza, according to USA Today.
The girl says she was harassed for several weeks by the couple, who told her she was a “pretty girl and men have their needs,” according to USA Today. She was also told that nobody would believe her.
French Olympic pairs figure skater Morgan Cipres is the subject of a U.S. SafeSport sexual abuse investigation after a 13-year-old girl said he sent lewd photos to her over Instagram, per Christine Brennan of USA Today.
The girl and Cipres both trained at AdventHealth Center Ice rink in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Cipres was 26 years old at the time the girl said he sent the photos.
The girl and her parents said after she told Cipres' coaches, John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, about the photos, they shamed and threatened her to dissuade reporting the allegations to U.S. SafeSport or other authorities.
The girl and her parents also said another coach at AdventHealth Center Ice, Vinny Dispenza, was involved.
Brennan provided further details:
"On Dec. 3, 2017, Cipres allegedly direct messaged two photos of his penis on Instagram to the girl, who skated at the same rink as Cipres in Wesley Chapel, Fla. USA Today Sports has reviewed those messages, which were sent from what appears to be Cipres’ verified account.
"The girl and her parents said a fourth adult also was involved in the alleged incident. Vinny Dispenza, another coach at the AdventHealth Center Ice rink, allegedly told the girl and another underage girl, whose family could not be reached for comment, to message Cipres asking him to send the photos to the girls in exchange for the promise of a pizza from Dispenza."
Brennan further outlined the girl and her parents' statements regarding Zimmerman and Fontana, who were coaching Cipres in the lead-in to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"The girl and her parents said that instead of going to police or SafeSport, which opened in March 2017 to investigate sexual abuse in Olympic sports, Zimmerman and Fontana implored them to stay quiet because Cipres and his pairs partner Vanessa James were in the final stages of their preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where they finished fifth.
"The girl and her parents allege Zimmerman and Fontana intimidated the girl for several weeks, telling her that she was at fault for receiving the pictures because she was a 'pretty girl and men have their needs,' that no one would believe her and that she would be shamed on social media, particularly in France, where Cipres is popular."
USA Today also contacted Cipres by phone, and the 28-year-old responded: "I cannot talk with you about anything about that. I mean, I have nothing to say about this allegation. I have nothing, nothing, nothing to say about anything about that so I’m sorry, I cannot talk to you."
Zimmermann and Fontana, who are married, issued a joint statement to USA Today:
“We are completely shocked by the recent allegations made in this article. We were not contacted by SafeSport and there are currently no claims against us. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of safety and professionalism. We deny the allegations and look forward to clearing up this matter which we take very seriously.”
French figure skater Morgan Ciprès is being investigated by an organization in the United States on suspicion of sending two obscene photos to a 13-year-old girl at the end of 2017, US daily USA Today reported on Tuesday.
Here, a bronze medalist in pairs at the 2018 World Championships with her partner Vanessa James, is training in Florida on the same rink as the teenager.
USA Today says that the United States Center for SafeSport has opened an investigation against the French, which has not confirmed this independent non-profit organization that fights against sexual abuse in the world of sport.
The US police has meanwhile not launched investigations, the teenager refused to testify, according to USA Today which is based on elements provided by the family of the teenager.
The family says the girl has been pressured by coaches Ciprès, John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, so she does not alert the authorities, the newspaper adds.
"I can not talk to you about anything, I mean I have nothing to say about these accusations," said Morgan Ciprès to the US newspaper.
"The Federation (French Ice Sports) manages the situation with him, he hired a lawyer and he does not intend to let it go," said only his press, contacted by AFP, without confirming the opening an investigation.
Contacted by AFP, the French Federation was not available in the early evening.
USA Today claims that the photos were sent from Morgan's Certified Instagram account after December 5, 2017, just weeks before the Pyeongchang Olympics where he finished 5th in a couple.
Ciprès (28 years old) has been skating with Vanessa James (32 years old) since 2010. They train in Florida, under the direction of John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, since summer 2016.
A coach at her rink told her to ask a 26-year-old Olympic skater to send her pictures of his penis, she alleges. In return, he offered the then-13-year-old and another underage friend pizza.
French pairs skater Morgan Cipres sent two photos by direct message on Instagram, the girl and her parents allege. When the family told coaches for the girl and Cipres what happened, they allegethe girl was pressured, even threatened, to keep quiet.
These are the accusations in an investigative story this week written by veteran sports columnist Christine Brennan and edited by Peter Barzilai. It started with a tip she got Aug. 10, soon after she published a story on Ashley Wagner, an Olympic skater who trusted Brennan with her story of sexual assault.
It took months for Brennan to report out all the details. She developed a relationship with the parents, who ultimately trusted her with two videos they took of a direct Instagram message. It appeared to come from Cipres' verified account.
She got a copy of the complaint sent to SafeSport, which first opened in March 2017 to investigate sexual abuse in Olympic sports. She confirmed the body is investigating.
Brennan obtained an email the girl's tutor sent to her therapist and parents. The tutor had become aware of the pressure and was worried for the teen over comments made by the coaches, John Zimmerman, a 2002 Olympian and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, Silvia Fontana, a 2002 and 2006 Olympian representing Italy, and Vinny Dispenza.
“Please ask her to share with you the many statements that have been made to her over the past few weeks (mostly by John) in an attempt to manipulate or scare her into keeping quiet,” the tutor wrote of the young skater. “She has been told that telling will place a target on her back with French fans, that she is the type of girl who does this (collect pics), that she has been asking for it by her clothing choices, that her dad is an attorney and imagine what he will do if he finds out, that she will destroy his career and that of his partner, and much more.”
Brennan confirmed the email with the therapist, who says: “I did what I was bound to do ethically. I contacted the parents. I contacted the authorities. I wanted to make sure the child was safe."
When asked Monday if he sent the photos of himself to the girl, Cipres replied: “I cannot talk with you about anything about that. I mean, I have nothing to say about this allegation. I have nothing, nothing, nothing to say about anything about that so I’m sorry, I cannot talk to you.”
And the three coaches sent a joint statement, after the story published (Brennan had asked for comment beforehand): “We are completely shocked by the recent allegations made in this article. We were not contacted by SafeSport and there are currently no claims against us. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of safety and professionalism. We deny the allegations and look forward to clearing up this matter which we take very seriously.”
These are allegations. The investigation is ongoing. But Olympic sports have a troubling pattern when it comes to young athletes alleging abuse or misconduct and adults denying it.
It happened in USA Gymnastics, where the Indianapolis Star uncovered horrific abuse by the team doctor and a cover-up by the sport's executives. It happened in taekwondo, where SafeSport banned brothers Jean and Steven Lopez for sexual misconduct, punishments that were lifted when witnesses declined to appear in the appeal hearing. And it happened to Wagner, who came to Brennan with her story in August of being assaulted by an adult skater when she had just turned 17.
The common thread in all of these stories: They would never have come to light without professional journalists, like Brennan, taking the care and time to investigate.
"I have no agenda while gathering facts," Brennan says. "I'm a blank slate. You have to find out what happened. Get as much information as you can to corroborate. Every syllable has to be checked and rechecked."
Brennan has covered every Olympics since 1984 and figure skating at the Olympics since 1988. She has written three books on the sport, including the national best-seller Inside Edge, published in 1996 after the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga.
"I believe things are changing due to this reporting," she says, "but slowly. Is any sport doing enough? No. Is our world doing enough? No. There are still way too many people protecting the brand, whatever the brand may be, rather than protecting our children."
The long-serving head of France's ice skating federation resigned Saturday in a widening scandal after multiple figure skaters accused their coaches of sexual abuse while they were underage.
Speaking to reporters after a special meeting of the federation, Didier Gailhaguet said he has "taken the wise decision to resign from my post. ... I have taken this decision with composure, with dignity, but without any bitterness before this injustice," the BBC reports.
Pressure on Gailhaguet began to mount after 10-time French skating champion Sarah Abitbol in a new book accused skating coach Gilles Beyer of coming into her dorm room and repeatedly raping her three decades ago, beginning at age 15.
Beyer admitted to intimate and inappropriate relations with Abitbol and apologized. Abitbol rejected the apology and called for accountability for "all those who covered up [the crimes] both in the club and the federation," the BBC noted.
Two other skaters have also accused Beyer of sexually abusing them and Paris prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation.
Multiple skaters have accused two other coaches, Jean-Roland Racle and Michel Lotz, of sexual abuse and harassment as well. Racle has denied the accusations and Lotz has not commented, according to reports.
Gailhaguet on Saturday accused France's sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, of making him a "sacrificial victim," The Associated Press reported. Maracineanu had earlier called for Gailhaguet to resign for allowing Beyer to continue working in the French skating federation despite earlier investigations into Beyer's misconduct.
Gailhaguet denied knowledge of allegations against Beyer, blaming the sports ministry for allowing Beyer to keep working in skating circles.
Gailhaguet served as the president of the French Federation of Ice Sports for nearly 20 years over two terms, first from 1998 to 2004, then from 2007 to the present.
Abitbol told French outlet L'Obs that Gailhaguet's resignation was "necessary, but this is only the first step."