Former Australian swimming coach John Wright is facing allegations of sexual and physical abuse against young boys ©Getty Images

Former Australian coach John Wright has been accused of committing sexual and physical abuse against a number of young swimmers, with national governing body Swimming Australia (SA) facing criticism for how it handled the allegations.

In a detailed investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Wright faced accusations of abuse against Shane Lewis, Colin Marshall, Toby Blundell and Paul Shearer.

Shearer first went public in 2009, and said he was a victim of at least 20 incidents of abuse by a coach in the late 1980s over a period of around 18 months.

Wright could not be named as the coach in question at the time the allegations were published, but the latest report references him as the perpetrator.

Shearer said in 2009 he was abused in the coach's car and his rented house on the Gold Coast.

"He befriended our family and down the track he went on to molest me or have sexual contact with me, you could say," Shearer told ABC.

"I'd be thinking to myself 'no, this isn't happening' so I'd call in to say hello and then next thing it was happening again and it was almost like, looking back on it now, it was almost like I was living in denial of what was taking place."

He contacted SA the day after his interview, but no investigation was undertaken.

His sister, Danielle Shearer, criticised authorities for not doing more.

"Disgusting," she said.

"It's absolutely disgusting that this is happening to you know, young children and young boys, especially at a time where it's you know, we all know that suicide is high, especially in boys … reaching puberty and then this is all happening to them.

"I think it's absolutely disgusting that they haven't taken the matter seriously and I know it happens in other sports too, but it needs to stop."

SA chief executive Eugenie Buckley said the governing body was unable to take further action in regards to Shearer's allegations because a formal complaint was not made.

"As was the process, the SA representative, which was a lawyer at the time, responded to him and had a conversation with him," Buckley said.

"I've seen a file note - I wasn't privy to the conversation.

"That was when it was, 'Can you please make a formal complaint? We need to be able to take this action further with the police' … during that call he agreed, but a complaint was never forthcoming.

"Our lawyer did then follow up another two times to see if he would please make that complaint but it was never forthcoming.

"That file was also passed on to the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse]."

John Wright was a coach at the Chandler club in Brisbane in the 1980s ©Getty Images
John Wright was a coach at the Chandler club in Brisbane in the 1980s ©Getty Images

Buckley added that the governing body "can absolutely commit to doing better."

"The process has changed significantly since 2009," she said.

"It's 12 years on, so it is a different process these days.

"An allegation of this seriousness, any allegation in relation to child abuse will automatically be referred to Sport Integrity Australia for independent investigation.

"They've got the investigation expertise and that's what would happen today.

"I think this is a process that just never stops.

"It's never 'job done' in relation to child safety."

The second part of the report also found suspicions against Wright over his behaviour in the 1970s at Rockhampton, with former coach Peter Gartrell describing his behaviour as "pretty suspect."

He said he told police of an incident in which Wright had both arms around a young boy in a car, but was told he had no criminal convictions by a detective.

After replacing Wright as a coach at the Chandler pool in Brisbane, Gartrell claimed some boys had "psychological scars."

Earlier in the week, ABC reported on the allegations that Wright abused Lewis, Marshall and Blundell.

Lewis died in February this year aged 47 with the cause yet to be determined, although his family believe it was suicide.

He first told his mother, Sue Lewis, of the abuse in 2010 as he recovered in hospital after a suicide attempt.

"He said he had been sexually assaulted as a minor over a year or more," Sue Lewis said.

"When he was 11,12,13.

"We didn’t know at the time.

"There were always innuendos around the place.

"Whispers around the clubs to be careful of John Wright.

"But Shane always seemed OK.

"He was the eldest of six kids.

"He was very good at hiding it."

Swimming Australia's then-chief executive Mark Anderson offered Shane Lewis
Swimming Australia's then-chief executive Mark Anderson offered Shane Lewis "the opportunity to hear from you further" in 2016, but no formal complaint was made, and Hetty Johnston said Lewis felt "discouraged" by the response ©Getty Images

Lewis turned to child protection advocate Hetty Johnston in February 2016, telling her in an email he was hoping for "systems and/or legislations that will limit, naively even remove, the opportunities and trust these gutless arseholes abuse."

"I am prepared to do my bit to help, in whatever capacity that may be," he added.

A friend contacted SA in February 2016, with a reply requesting further detail and including a short questionnaire about the alleged abuse, but Lewis wrote back expressing his dissatisfaction.

"With respect, I don’t believe that filling out a few boxes with high level information will yield significant interest, nor is [it] possibly the best way to kick start anything," he said.

"Just my opinion.

"I want to help people, chasing people doesn’t motivate me.

"I personally will not benefit by chasing.

"The way I have handled things since it all happened, may only be matched by a few, and would shock a lot of people.

"Regrettably, there isn’t anything that can take that away or take it back, how one has handled the darkest of dark times is with you for life.

"It’s part of our make up now."

Mark Anderson, the then-chief executive of SA, sent a letter to Lewis offering "the opportunity to hear from you further - either in writing, verbally by phone, or in person," but Johnston said the lack of apology discouraged him and he opted not take the complaint further.

"Swimming Australia wrote a lovely letter," Johnston said.

"But the word sorry didn’t appear in it anywhere.

"And what a survivor always looks for is that everyone wants to know, deep in your soul, that what happened is not your fault.

"And he was, you know, he was discouraged by it, most definitely discouraged by it.

"He felt let down by Swimming Australia."

His daughter Mikaela Lewis was unaware of the allegations until after his death and said more should have been done by SA when concerns were raised.

"When he complained, I feel like there should have been action taken," Lewis said.

"And I feel like if the correct actions were taken, then I would have known about it."

Lisa Curry was a friend of Lewis', with both training together in the 1980s and competing at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

She also criticised SA for its inaction.

"Well, of course more could have been done to help them," Curry commented.

"They went to authorities I think back in 2016 and nothing happened.

Lisa Curry, a friend of Shane Lewis, said
Lisa Curry, a friend of Shane Lewis, said "more could have been done" to help John Wright's alleged victims of abuse ©Getty Images


"Why does nothing happen?"

Buckley of SA said she understood Curry's anger, but denied that Lewis' case had been "swept under the carpet."

She said that Anderson referred the allegations to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, but insufficient information and resources hampered SA at the time.

"One, there wasn’t enough detail upon which to investigate, and two it was a resourcing issue," responded Buckley.

"Swimming Australia didn’t have the resources.

"Now we’ve got an in-house resource that looks after member protection.

"The other resource we have now is in relation to athlete wellbeing and engagement that can really support the athlete through this process a whole lot better.

"In terms of an investigation, that’s not our expertise, we’re not investigators."

A complaint would now be referred to the police and Federal Government agency Sports Integrity Australia, Buckley added, and she claimed SA will "always listen, we’ll always learn and we’ll always improve."

Australian junior backstroke champion Marshall also revealed as part of the investigation that he was a victim of abuse by Wright, starting from when he was 12.

He said Wright would often "touch you in the areas that you’re not supposed to be touched."

"It started at the pool," Marshall explained.

"He would use the excuse that he was going to weigh you on the scales, which were in a room behind one of the major stands at Chandler and that’s where all our gear was kept.

"Obviously he could walk off with a boy down there in that direction and no-one would question why.

"He would grab you by the testicles and push them upwards.

"You know, lightening your weight and making out that was a funny thing to do."

Of movie nights held at Wright's house in the Brisbane suburb of Carindale, Marshall said: "Sometimes you might get there and John was just there alone.

"And potentially, that would be a time where something might happen like that or even while you were there, he would say, ‘Oh, I need to, you know, see you in my room for a tick,’ or something like that.

The head of Queensland Police's child sex crimes unit superintendent Mark White said a senior officer had been appointed to investigate the allegations ©Getty Images
The head of Queensland Police's child sex crimes unit superintendent Mark White said a senior officer had been appointed to investigate the allegations ©Getty Images

"And take you away from the rest of the group."

Marshall also referenced one incident which forced him to leave the Chandler club in 1985, where Wright punished him for his refusal to swim more than one lap in a training session by grabbing him around the throat which meant his "air was being cut off" until a parent saved him.

He said he feared Wright "was probably enraged enough to kill me at that point."

He shared stories with Lewis in 2016, and said they "experienced very similar things."

Blundell said he was abused in the car with Wright aged 13 en route to the Chandler pool.

"My personal experience was just inappropriate touching," he said.

"I tried sitting in the front seat of a car with a bench seat and he’d ask you to move closer or lean over and touch you and say he’s changing gears and things like that."

Wright was convicted of assaulting Cindy Wee, the daughter of Singapore's then-President, in 1986.

Her daughter Su-Lin Ch’ng was coached by Wright and lived at his house.

Wee contacted swimming authorities to complain of Wright's "vulgar" behaviour, and the coach subsequently verbally abused and then assaulted her.

Wright was found guilty but was placed on an 18-month good behaviour bond.

He left the Chandler pool to take up a similar post at the Palm Beach Currumbin pool on the Gold Coast.

Despite its exhaustive attempts, the ABC said it had been unable to contact Wright.

However, superintendent Mark White, the head of Queensland Police's child sex crimes unit, confirmed a senior officer had been appointed to probe the allegations and urged any alleged victims or witnesses to come forward.

A two-part documentary on the abuse allegations aired this week on the ABC's '7.30' programme.

The scandal comes in the same week that Australian football legend Lisa De Vanna alleged that she had been a victim of sexual harassment and bullying during her career, with Football Australia working with Sport Integrity Australia to develop an independent complaints process.