SafeSport script flipped for rugby referee

Gray Montrose could not believe it when she opened her email earlier this year and read that she was facing punishment from the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The 34-year-old attorney and part-time rugby referee had filed a claim with SafeSport, the U.S. Olympic Movement’s sexual misconduct watchdog, in June 2021, reporting that she had been harassed and groped by a fellow referee named Joseph Burpoe while en route to officiate a match near her home in Virginia four years earlier.

Her complaint sparked some action. Burpoe admitted wrongdoing, and SafeSport placed him on probation for six months. But Burpoe continued to receive refereeing assignments, and Montrose began to question whether SafeSport’s sanctions had led to any real consequences for him. So she started asking questions, emailing colleagues in the rugby community, checking whether Burpoe was abiding by the terms of his probation, eventually sending copies of the official SafeSport documents that outlined the entire history of the incident — from allegation to decision.

But those emails are now key pieces of evidence in an ongoing SafeSport investigation focused on Montrose, one of the first-known instances in which SafeSport has attempted to punish an individual for sharing documents related to a case. On June 3, according to a confidential document obtained by ABC News and ESPN, SafeSport notified Montrose that she was under investigation for a pair of allegations — that she “allegedly engaged in behavior that constitutes Abuse of Process, as [she], on more than one occasion, disseminated a confidential document” and “allegedly engaged in behaviors that constitute Emotional Misconduct: Stalking and Harassment, of adult participant, J.B.”

According to communication obtained by ABC News and ESPN, SafeSport has since offered Montrose three different “informal resolutions,” described to her by one SafeSport official as “a kind of plea deal,” including sanctions ranging in severity from three to six months of probation. She has refused to accept them as she weighs her legal options, prompting SafeSport to threaten to launch a formal investigation. For her attempts to show others that Burpoe admitted to sexually harassing her, Montrose faces the prospect of receiving sanctions comparable to those given to him.

“This is absurd,” Montrose wrote in reply to one offered resolution. “On its face, from an organization ostensibly dedicated to protecting the vulnerable, [this] is ridiculous.”

Burpoe, through his attorney Greg Gilliam, declined to be interviewed for this article. His probation has ended, and he continues to serve as chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rugby Referees, which “provides referee services to schools and clubs throughout Colorado and Wyoming.” But according to Gilliam, Burpoe is retracting his earlier admission of wrongdoing and now denies any allegations of sexual misconduct.

SafeSport’s CEO Ju’Riese Colon has declined multiple requests for an interview with ABC News and ESPN for more than a year. Dan Hill, a spokesman for the organization, said SafeSport does not discuss specific cases. He defended the organization’s confidentiality policy, which prohibits the sharing of documents related to a case, as designed to protect the privacy of everyone involved, including victims and witnesses.

“The US Center for SafeSport’s track record is one of independence and accountability having removed and sanctioned more individuals for abuse than the national governing bodies in their collective histories,” Hill said. “The biggest setback to reporting abuse occurs when these sensitive matters are sensationalized and misrepresented.”

Montrose, though, said the confidentiality policy stymied her efforts to hold Burpoe accountable and warn others about his alleged behavior, echoing concerns from critics about SafeSport’s record on transparency. With the help of her attorney, Kellie Budd, Montrose successfully applied for funding to pursue legal help for her situation from the National Women’s Law Center and its TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which aims to support individuals who have experienced harassment or retaliation in the workplace.

Budd called SafeSport’s treatment of Montrose “unacceptable.”

“In my opinion this is clearly retaliatory treatment, and will no doubt have a chilling effect on women who are considering coming forward with their claims of sexual harassment,” Budd wrote in a statement. “We will explore all available legal remedies to hold the parties involved accountable for their actions.”

Montrose fell in love with rugby while playing at the club level in college. After graduation, she found a way to stay connected to the sport and its community through officiating, spending evenings and weekends patrolling the sidelines of rugby matches and climbing the ranks of USA Rugby’s developmental pipeline for referees.

In 2017, Montrose said she was assigned to work alongside Burpoe, someone she had met before but did not know well, at a weekend tournament near her home. She offered to let him stay in her spare bedroom the night before the match to help make his travel more affordable and convenient. But according to Montrose, Burpoe propositioned her for sex that night and continued to harass her after she declined his advances. During their drive back from the match the following afternoon, Montrose said, Burpoe reached across the front seat of the car and grabbed her breast.

Montrose said she initially chose not to report what she called a “he said, she said” situation because she thought it might harm her standing in the sport. But in 2021, with her officiating career stalling, she said, she decided to file a report with SafeSport.

“I just got so frustrated and so angry,” Montrose said. “If I’m out, if I’m done, if I leave, somebody will know that this happened, and there will at least be some kind of a record.”

Months after receiving Montrose’s complaint, SafeSport offered Burpoe what it calls an “informal resolution” — an opportunity to avoid a formal investigation in exchange for admitting wrongdoing. He agreed. According to confidential documents obtained by ABC News and ESPN, Burpoe “voluntarily acknowledged” that he “engaged in conduct that constitutes sexual misconduct, specifically nonconsensual sexual contact and sexual harassment, involving an adult female referee.”

Specifically, Burpoe admitted that he made “unwanted sexual advances toward the Claimant,” and that while he “does not remember the incident of unwanted touching of a sexual nature, he does not dispute the incident as the Claimant alleges.”

SafeSport, noting that Burpoe’s behavior was “mitigated” by his “candidness, cooperation … and willingness to take accountability for his conduct,” placed him on probation for six months starting in October of 2021 and mandated that he complete an online training course.

Hill, the SafeSport spokesman, said the organization uses informal resolutions to streamline their process, calling it “an effective tool in expediting matters when the respondent accepts the terms while acknowledging the violations committed.” Hill initially told ABC News and ESPN that informal resolutions were used in only “a small percentage” of cases, but when asked for more detailed statistics, he acknowledged that more than 350 such agreements have been struck the last five years, which would represent nearly 22% of the 1,607 cases that have resulted in sanctions to date.

SafeSport maintains a public database of temporarily suspended and permanently banned individuals, a resource for athletes and parents designed to promote public safety through awareness. But because Burpoe was merely put on probation, his name never appeared in the database. According to the agreement, SafeSport entrusted Burpoe “to disclose his probationary status to any organization” within the U.S. Olympic Movement where he “is employed, volunteers, or otherwise participates,” but he was not required to disclose the behavior that led to the sanction.

He appears to have complied with the agreement: Gilliam provided ABC News and ESPN with the names of eight officials from USA Rugby and various referee associations he said Burpoe “verbally informed” of his probation. Spokespersons for both USA Rugby and Rocky Mountain Rugby Referees confirmed that Burpoe made the required disclosures.

But weeks after Burpoe and SafeSport made the agreement, Montrose said, Burpoe was still receiving coveted assignments. To Montrose, it seemed as if Burpoe was free to carry on as if she had never filed a complaint against him.

“I kept seeing his name everywhere,” Montrose told ABC News and ESPN. “Why is he still being assigned? Why are people still working with him? Absolutely nothing happened.”

SafeSport’s rules do not prevent victims from telling their stories or warning other people, but the organization considers case documents confidential and guards them closely. Documents are initially available to involved parties, but the link to them becomes inaccessible after 10 business days, and the SafeSport Code notes that sharing those documents with third parties would constitute a violation of the rules, subject to its own penalties.

Montrose knew the rules, she said, but she felt that they put her in a difficult position as she began reaching out to other members of the rugby community, searching for some sign that Burpoe was facing tangible consequences for his actions.

“It made me feel completely helpless to do anything, because no one knows, and no one will believe me without proof,” Montrose said. “SafeSport won’t even admit that they adjudicated the claim. There’s no record. I have no information. Nobody can go out there and check a list. It’s never gonna show up on a background check. There’s nothing I can do that says, ‘This happened.’ And so I’m the crazy person, yelling in the corner, saying, ‘This happened to me.’ And nobody believes me.”

Montrose’s anxieties peaked in February when she learned that Burpoe had recently been elected by his peers to serve as chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rugby Referees, putting him into a position of authority over the assignments of other referees. Montrose emailed some of the group’s voting members and other colleagues she knew worked with Burpoe to find out how much they knew. She said several members of the group replied that they had been unaware of her allegations and Burpoe’s admission when they cast their ballots. One colleague asked if she had any proof. A spokesperson for the organization confirmed that the group’s leaders had not informed their full membership of his probation, telling ABC News and ESPN that “there was no requirement” outlined in SafeSport’s rules to do so.

So Montrose made a consequential decision. She sent several additional emails to rugby officials and referee society leaders, attaching documents related to her case that contained Burpoe’s admission of wrongdoing. Montrose acknowledged she was aware of SafeSport’s rules — the documents were clearly marked confidential — but she questioned whether such a policy was legally enforceable.

“Nobody asked me if I wanted to keep this confidential,” Montrose said. “In what way am I bound to this process? I made a complaint. I didn’t sign anything that said, ‘I agree to this.'”

Her decision would have serious implications for both of them.

For Montrose, she underwent an abrupt transition from reporting party to responding party, from accuser to accused. On March 28, SafeSport notified Montrose via email that it had “received a report concerning [her]” alleging that she had “engaged in behaviors that constitute Harassment and Abuse of Process” and advised her of her rights.

Communication between multiple SafeSport officials and Montrose over the course of the next several weeks obtained by ABC News and ESPN reveals that while SafeSport officials reassured Montrose that “what happened to her was not diminished in the eyes of the Center,” they repeatedly pressured her to accept or reject their offers of an informal resolution of her own.

“Moving to investigations is not a threat in any way,” one SafeSport investigator wrote. “If you feel you can prove you did not violate the Code and the Center’s process, then having the case move to investigations is the best thing you can do.”

Montrose has so far declined to enter any agreement, and she is awaiting the outcome of SafeSport’s investigation as she explores legal options.

Jennifer Mondino, the director of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, told ABC News and ESPN that the organization made an initial investment in Montrose’s case because she believes it is “related to policy battles that are going on around the country right now about silencing survivors.”

“You would hope that they would be being really thoughtful and intentional about setting up their processes in a way that would help survivors,” Mondino said. “And this seems to me to be exactly the opposite of that.”

Hill, the SafeSport spokesman, said that while the organization doesn’t comment on specific cases, its rules “strictly prohibit” filing claims as a means of retaliation. He objected to Mondino’s opinion on the organization’s policies, saying they are “consistent with federal law and intended to protect all persons involved in the Center’s processes.”

For Burpoe, consequences would come, but not from SafeSport. On July 18, Burpoe was notified that due to a recent change to USA Rugby policy, he was now barred from officiating federation-sanctioned matches.

“The Board of Directors has taken the position that USA Rugby will not hire employees or contractors who have an actual finding of sexual misconduct against them from SafeSport or a similar court of competent jurisdiction,” Corey MacDonald, USA Rugby’s General Legal Counsel, wrote in an email obtained by ABC News and ESPN. “As you have such a finding, we will not be able to employ you moving forward.”

SafeSport’s mandate, backed by federal law, gives the organization sole jurisdiction to suspend or ban individuals from sports. That power was designed to take those decisions out of the hands of national governing bodies that might have conflicts of interest if asked to investigate high-powered or successful individuals within their communities.

But SafeSport’s exclusive authority to issue those sanctions has also led to some cases in which a national governing body is unable to remove someone they feel might be a liability because a SafeSport investigation into that person did not result in their removal from the sport.

Calder Cahill, a spokesperson for USA Rugby, declined to comment specifically on any personnel matters but in a statement to ABC News and ESPN confirmed the adoption of the new policy after SafeSport “advised that NGBs have a narrowly tailored power to make internal employment determinations using the Center’s findings as a basis for action.”

Most coaches and athletes who fall under SafeSport’s purview are not considered employees of their sport’s governing body, but Burpoe contracts with USA Rugby when he officiates federation-sanctioned matches, so the national governing body appears to have assumed more power to limit his participation.

Gilliam, Burpoe’s attorney, contends USA Rugby has effectively transformed Burpoe’s six-month probation into a lifetime ban from the sport’s elite national matches, limiting the types of contests he can officiate and raising thorny questions about the murky shared jurisdictions between SafeSport and the national governing bodies that it is empowered to police.

This “change in circumstances” has prompted Burpoe to retract his earlier admission of wrongdoing, Gilliam said, seeking to invalidate his informal resolution and reopen his SafeSport case.

Hill, SafeSport’s spokesperson, said the organization “would not entertain” an effort by Burpoe to rescind his agreement but did not directly address questions about USA Rugby’s new policy and its implications.

“The Center’s role, as it pertains to specific matters, is to investigate, and when warranted, hold individuals accountable for misconduct and violations of the SafeSport Code,” Hill told ABC News and ESPN. “Employment and eligibility outside of the Center’s authority are left to the national governing bodies.”

But while Burpoe maintains some ties to the sport, Montrose is taking a break from refereeing and finds herself disillusioned by a system that she hoped would help her.

“To just sort of feel like I’m falling through the cracks, and I’m not really a participant in my sport, that’s just miserable and demeaning,” she said. “And the whole point of this was that you just want to feel like somebody’s hearing you, that there’s a process, and that this is gonna be taken care of.”

Dan Murphy is an investigative reporter for ESPN and Pete Madden is an investigative producer for ABC News. Reach them at [email protected] and [email protected]

ESPN’s John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.

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