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Former gymnast files lawsuit alleging Gymnastics Canada, others failed to stop predator

Gymnastics Gymnastics - Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A former gymnast has filed a $2.65-million lawsuit alleging she was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused for years by one of her former coaches and that the abuse was allowed to continue because of the negligence of co-defendants including the Ontario Gymnastics Federation and Gymnastics Canada.

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Ontario Superior Court in Toronto, the former gymnast alleges that she was abused by coach Scott McFarlane after he began coaching at Manjak’s Gymnastics in Oakville, Ont., in 2013. Owner Kelly Manjak, who has moved his gym to Hamilton, is also named as co-defendant in the lawsuit, as is his business.

McFarlane was charged with a number of sexual assault crimes related to the same gymnast in 2018 and acquitted in November 2022 following a judge-only trial. McFarlane is not currently eligible to coach, according to the Ontario Gymnastics Federation's website, which says he is suspended from all activities pending an internal review.

TSN is not naming the plaintiff because the network has a policy of not naming people who are victims or alleged victims of abuse without their permission. She is suing for $400,000 for general damages, $500,000 apiece for punitive and aggravated damages, and $1 million for special damages. She's also seeking $250,000 for “damages for loss of interdependent relationships.”

Prior to working at Manjak’s, McFarlane was employed at Tumblers Gymnastics in Ottawa until he was fired in April 2013 for sending inappropriate social media messages to a 12-year-old athlete at that gym, telling her that he “loved her” and “was going to kiss her one day,” the lawsuit alleges.

After his firing by Tumblers, McFarlane was allowed to continue to train and be certified by the Ontario Gymnastics Federation and Gymnastics Canada, and was permitted to continue to coach athletes who were minors, the lawsuit says.

The former gymnast’s allegations have not been proven and none of the defendants have filed a response in court.

Ontario Gymnastics Association chief executive Dave Sanford wrote in an email to TSN on Tuesday that his organization had not been served with a claim and was unable to comment. Gymnastics Canada spokeswoman Katia Perin wrote in an email that the organization declined to comment. McFarlane’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the lawsuit, McFarlane, who was then 23, was hired at Manjak’s several months after he was fired by Tumblers, and began coaching the plaintiff.

“At the time, [the plaintiff] was a national elite-level competitive athlete and was training upwards of 27 hours per week at Manjak’s,” the lawsuit says. “McFarlane quickly took over the majority of [her] coaching and eventually became her dedicated coach.”

McFarlane used his position of authority to groom, manipulate and sexually assault the plaintiff, the lawsuit said, adding that he provided her with extra attention and coaching, gave her prolonged hugs, tickled her, held her hand, massaged her feet and pulled her toes, sent her private and intimate messages telling her that he loved her via text message, Messenger and Snapchat, and bought her gifts.

“In 2015, when [the plaintiff] was approximately 12 years old, McFarlane began to escalate his predatory behaviour,” the lawsuit says. “McFarlane began caressing and groping [her] buttocks and sending her shirtless pictures of himself. On several occasions McFarlane requested that [she] send him topless pictures of herself and pictures of her feet. McFarlane would tell [her] that he loved her and would get angry and manipulate her into feeling guilty if she did not provide him with enough attention. He was also controlling of [her], including demanding that [she] respond to his social media and text messages within a certain time frame even when during school hours.”

During the time McFarlane was allegedly abusing the plaintiff, Manjak received communications from other gymnastics studios with concerns about McFarlane’s allegedly predatory behaviours towards minors, the lawsuit says, adding that Manjak failed to investigate or take appropriate action to protect minor athletes from McFarlane.

“[Manjak’s Gym officials] knew or ought to have known that McFarlane was a sexual predator and/or a person with aberrant sexual tendencies who engaged in illegal and immoral sexual activities with young athletes,” the lawsuit says.

Manjak denied the allegations in an interview on Monday with TSN.

“The girl's family has to do what they have to do, but I did not hire McFarlane knowing he had done anything bad at another gym," Manjak said. "I did the police check, the background checks, and everything I needed to do. He didn't say on his resume that he had worked at Tumblers. I had no idea. And after I hired him, he babysat this gymnast in her own home. Her family trusted McFarlane more than I did.”

Manjak said that Tumblers, the Ottawa gym, should have notified the Ontario Gymnastics Association about the reason for McFarlane's departure from the gym and that information should have been made public.

“It was a breakdown in the system,” he said. “We need to keep kids safe.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Karl Balisch, the former general manager at Tumblers who allegedly fired McFarlane in 2013, was hired as a director of Gymnastics Canada in 2014 and, despite his direct knowledge of McFarlane’s behaviours, failed to take appropriate action to protect athletes.

“In fact, Balisch ensured that McFarlane’s coaching certifications were advanced by [Gymnastics Canada],” the lawsuit says. “Balisch’s action resulted in [the plaintiff] continuing to be sexually groomed, manipulated and assaulted by McFarlane.”

Balisch, who is now Archery Canada’s executive director, wrote in an email to TSN on Wednesday that he was unaware of the lawsuit and denied the allegations made about him.

Manjak told TSN that he fired McFarlane in September 2017 after the plaintiff’s mother discovered inappropriate messages between her daughter and McFarlane on her daughter's iPad. Gymnastics Ontario then suspended McFarlane for three months, the lawsuit says.

McFarlane sent the plaintiff several photos of his penis in 2018 and again began encouraging her to send him topless photos of herself and pictures of her feet, the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, the gymnast has suffered major depression, sexual dysfunction, panic attacks, an inability to trust others, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When McFarlane was acquitted in 2022, the judge in his trial, Justice Fletcher Dawson, wrote that credibility was a central issue in the case.

“The accused denies that he touched [the gymnast's] buttocks for a sexual purpose or that he transmitted images of his penis to her,” Dawson wrote in his reasons for acquittal. “No one else saw the touching described by the complainant and the photos she alleges were sent to her disappeared from Snapchat and were not recovered or produced in evidence.”

The plaintiff told TSN on Monday that police unsuccessfully tried to recover the photos McFarlane allegedly sent via Snapchat. Snapchat, which has more than 400 million daily active users, lets people send messages and images that disappear and are not kept on the company’s servers.

McFarlane testified at his criminal trial that he had no romantic or sexual interest in the complainant and testified that he only used Snapchat because athletes had pressured him to. He acknowledged that he would occasionally text "Good night, I love you,” to the plaintiff.

In one message to the gymnast that was included as evidence at his criminal trial, McFarlane wrote, "literally next to my family I care about you more than anyone in the world. I told you I cared more about losing you than my own girlfriend. Since Vancouver you haven’t said I love you one time to me when I’ve said it so much to you.

“Like I love you so much my heart is breaking everyday cause you don’t love or care for me back. And you want me to be happy at the gym but I’m miserable because I lost my baby.”

McFarlane testified at the criminal trial that the youngest group of female athletes at the high-performance and elite level at Manjak's, including the plaintiff, were often referred to as "Scott's babies."

“There is nothing sexual in any of the imaged messages,” Dawson wrote in his decision. “There are indications of an unusually close relationship.”

The judge also wrote the complainant’s testimony was “inconsistent.”

“For many events her memory was poor, although understandably so, given her age and the passage of time,” the judge wrote. “Nothing about the way [she] gave her evidence sends up a red flag on the truthfulness or credibility front... She often said that certain things that were suggested to her which she had not testified to ‘sounded right’ or ‘could have happened’. Based on the way [she] gave her evidence, but based also on the content of her evidence, I have more concerns about the reliability of her evidence than her truthfulness.”