The U.S. Center for SafeSport has opened an investigation into an allegation of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old American female figure skater by French Olympic pairs skater Morgan Cipres in 2017, according to the girl, her parents and emails obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
The girl and her parents also said Cipres’ coaches, John Zimmerman, a 2002 Olympian and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and Silvia Fontana, a 2002 and 2006 Olympian representing Italy, tried to keep the family from reporting the alleged incident to authorities by shaming and threatening the girl as Cipres, who then was 26, prepared for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The girl and her parents are not being identified because USA TODAY Sports does not publish the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse.
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 offered the girl and another underage girl, whose family could not be reached for comment, a deal: message Cipres asking him to send the photos to the girls in exchange for a pizza from Dispenza.
Zimmerman and Fontana, who are married to each other, were made aware of the photos in a meeting with Dispenza at their home that evening, the girl and her parents said.
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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.
Dispenza also allegedly issued a threat. “If I said something, he said I would never skate again,” the girl said.
When asked Monday morning over the phone 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.”
Zimmerman and Fontana each did not reply to calls or text messages to their cell phones, a call to the rink and several requests for comment through their publicist. Dispenza did not return a call to his cell phone, a text to his cell phone and a call to the rink.
In a statement to USA TODAY Sports, U.S. Figure Skating said that it “does not tolerate misconduct or abuse and encourages anyone who has been abused or suspects abuse to report it to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, local law enforcement or U.S. Figure Skating.”
SafeSport senior investigator Libby Bailey told the family in emails and phone calls that she is probing the events surrounding the alleged incident. SafeSport spokesperson Dan Hill said that he and Bailey cannot confirm an active investigation per the organization's policy.
The girl’s parents provided USA TODAY Sports with a Dec. 30, 2017, email sent from their daughter’s tutor, whose name is not being used to protect the identity of the family, to Dara Bushman, a psychologist who worked with their daughter.
“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.”
“I received that email,” Bushman said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “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 the police arrived to interview the girl, she refused to tell them what happened, her parents said. Within a few weeks of the alleged incident, the parents said they took their daughter out of the Tampa-area rink and returned to their home in South Florida. She has been in therapy since, they said. The police took no action after the girl declined to cooperate.
Zimmerman, Fontana and Dispenza are all still coaching at the Wesley Chapel rink, while Cipres still trains at the rink, but is performing in skating shows this month in Europe.
On Aug. 10, 2019, a friend of the family reported the allegation to SafeSport after reading three-time U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner’s story of alleged sexual abuse in USA TODAY Sports on Aug. 1.
Wagner’s allegation against former U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin was the latest in a startling series of sexual abuse allegations and suspensions that have rocked figure skating in 2019.
Coughlin, 33, died by suicide Jan. 18, one day after he received an interim suspension from SafeSport. USA TODAY Sports has reported that there were three reports of sexual abuse against Coughlin, two of them involving minors. Coughlin’s death effectively ended the investigation into those reports, SafeSport announced in February. Wagner’s case is separate from those three reports.
Zimmerman, 46, had an illustrious career as one of the top U.S. pairs skaters in decades. He and partner Kyoko Ina finished fifth at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and also won three U.S. national pairs titles and the 2002 world championship bronze medal. He and Ina were inducted into the USFS Hall of Fame on January 5, 2018.
Fontana, 43, is a five-time Italian national champion in singles skating.
Cipres, 28, and his pairs partner James have won six French national titles, the 2018 world championship bronze medal, the 2018 Grand Prix Final and the 2019 European championship.
Follow Brennan @cbrennansports. Contact her at christinebrennan.com.