Lawsuit: US Olympic fencing organization failed to prevent sexual abuse of Nashville athlete

By: - August 9, 2022 4:56 pm
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Officials with USA Fencing, the national governing body for the sport, knew that Nashville’s premier swordsmanship coach was engaging in sexually inappropriate and abusive behavior, yet failed to act before the sought-after instructor went on to sexually abuse a 13-year-old girl over a two-year period, a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges.

The coach, Robert Piraino, was indicted by a Nashville grand jury last year on 108 counts involving sex crimes against the girl, who is now 16. In June of this year, while out on bond, Piraino was re-arrested on additional charges of sexual battery involving a 17-year-old male athlete.

Piraino, 38, is being held in a Davidson County jail. Both Piraino and his training facility, Music City Fencing Club, are also named in the suit.

The lawsuit filed in a Nashville federal court by the girl and her parents — using pseudonyms to protect the family’s privacy — alleges the girl was coerced into sending increasingly sexualized photos of herself to Piraino, who waived his fees, bought her equipment, gave her money and pressured her with reminders that her family was struggling financially due to the pandemic. Then, the lawsuit said, his behavior escalated.

The lawsuit makes pointed reference to the sex abuse scandals in USA Gymnastics, the Boy Scouts of American and the Catholic Church.

Piraino was influential in the world of elite fencing, training girls and boys at Music City Fencing Club in Nashville, a USA Fencing-approved facility that drew hundreds of young athletes.

Music City Fencing held USA Fencing-sanctioned tournaments and camps, its students routinely qualified for regional and national competitions, and the club received numerous excellence awards from the national group, according to the suit. Piraino also held positions of authority inside USA Fencing, including serving as a regional and statewide coordinator.

Robert Piraino, former coach of Music City Fencing Club. Photo: Metro Nashville Police Department

“For a young fencer in Nashville who wanted to pursue a college or Olympic fencing career, there was no genuine alternative to Music City Fencing,” the suit said.  “Piraino, with USA Fencing’s knowledge and assent, became the most powerful person in the Tennessee fencing community.”

Yet Piraino’s inappropriate behavior toward his young students wasn’t a secret, according to the lawsuit, which alludes to multiple potential victims.

He would attend social gatherings with underage fencers, providing them alcohol. Fellow coaches — who, like Piraino, were members of USA Fencing — heard Piraino joke about “engaging in criminal sexual activity with young fencers.” One unnamed coach quoted in the suit said “‘if Piraino was serious about some of the things he said, he should spend the rest of his life in prison.'”

And, the lawsuit said, “before or during the time Piraino was sexually abusing Jane Doe (the girl’s pseudonym in the lawsuit), USA Fencing was in possession of information concerning Piraino’s sexually inappropriate and abusive behavior…”

The lawsuit did not detail what information about Piraino had allegedly come to the attention of the national group.

A spokesman for USA Fencing said he could not comment on the specifics of the litigation, but outlined ongoing and new efforts to keep its athletes safe.

“I want to underline that the safety of our fencers is our top priority,” Bryan Wendell, the spokesman, emailed Tuesday. “USA Fencing will never stop working to create a safe and positive environment for athletes’ physical, emotional and social development — and to ensuring that we foster and promote an environment free of misconduct.”

The organization publicly posts a list of ineligible and banned individuals, names that are also shared via email with members. Piraino has been banned by USA Fencing since Sept. 23, 2021, Wendell noted. The group conducts annual background checks and requires coaches to undergo yearly training through the United States Center for SafeSport, an independent entity established by Congress in 2018 to provide training to Olympic sports organizations and investigate abuse allegations. USA Fencing consistently communicates how to report misconduct with its members, Wendell said.

Beginning this season, all coaches and members working at a national tournament will be required to take SafeSport sexual harassment prevention training, a requirement that goes beyond what’s mandated by SafeSport, Wendell noted. And USA Fencing is working on other initiatives as well, including education aimed at minors and a certificate training program for coaches.

Aaron Rothbaum, Piraino’s public defender in his criminal case, declined comment, and a phone number for Music City Fencing has been disconnected. Gary Blackburn, the Nashville-based attorney representing the girl and her parents along with Decatur, Georgia-based attorney, George Smith, also declined comment on the litigation.

Once Piraino began receiving photos of the girl in naked or semi-naked poses, his demands escalated, the lawsuit said. He would text and SnapChat the girl nearly every day and at random times, sending thousands of messages including sexually inappropriate videos, the lawsuit alleges.

Among the allegations: Piraino would tell the girl to go to the locker room after practice, and take pictures of herself using a phone he had left in a locker. Sometimes, he would leave clothing in the locker instructing the girl to wear the clothes while taking selfies. He sent the girl photos of women in sexually suggestive poses and demand she take photos of herself mimicking them. He demanded, and received, videos of the girl unclothed. He then told her he intended to sell the videos and photos online.

When the girl resisted Piraino’s demands, he would physically punish her by making her perform during fencing practice in ways that aggravated her sports injuries, the lawsuit said.

Piraino also sent the girl explicit videos of himself masturbating and having sex with other women, the lawsuit alleges. In one instance, he sent the girl a video of him receiving oral sex from a different girl he said was underage, the lawsuit alleges.

During fencing practice he would touch the girl inappropriately and insist on giving her massages during which he would fondle her while “moaning and grunting sexually,” the lawsuit said.

The abuse ended after “it became clear to Jane Doe that Piraino was grooming her to be raped,” telling the girl that during an upcoming 2021 summer fencing camp he would “have her perform manual and oral sex on him in the locker room at Music City Fencing,” the lawsuit said.  He told her that her camp fees would be waived, according to the suit.

The girl texted Piraino soon after — while she was temporarily laid up with a shoulder injury — to stop contacting her.

The abuse she suffered was revealed months later to a therapist sought out by her parents, who were concerned about their daughter’s increasingly worrisome behavior, which included involuntary tics, pulling out her own hair and uncharacteristic academic struggles.

The disclosure led to Piraino’s arrest by Metro Nashville police on August 9, 2021.

The girl’s nude photographs have since been distributed online, the lawsuit said. They have also been shared with a former fencing coach, who was a member of USA Fencing, and with a “known purveyor of internet child pornography,” who distributed the images to others, the lawsuit said.

“USA Fencing’s promotion and public commendation of Piraino was based on a fantasy,” the lawsuit said of Piraino’s former prominent position in the sport.

“The reality is that while USA Fencing was making Piraino the face of the sport for the southeastern region of the United States, he was molesting underage fencers, getting drunk with underage fencers, carrying on sexually explicit dialogue with underage fencers over text message and SnapChat, speaking openly with other coaches about his desire to engage in criminal sexual activity with underage fencers, and flagrantly failing to enforce and violating SafeSport’s and USA Fencing’s policies relating to sexual misconduct and abuse.”

USA Fencing lawsuit by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.