Walt Disney Resorts bans controversial volleyball coach Rick Butler

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Rick Butler watches a scrimmage in 2014. | Stacie Scott/Lincoln Journal Star

Walt Disney World Resorts, which hosts the Amateur Athletic Union’s national volleyball tournament, said on Wednesday that west suburban coach Rick Butler is “no longer welcome” on its property.

Glen Ellyn native Sarah Powers-Barnhard, now an AAU volleyball coach in Florida, fought for years to keep Butler out of the tournament. Powers is one of several local women that claim Butler sexually abused them when they were teenagers.

“It feels huge,” Powers-Barnhard said. “Every year it would come up on me and be daunting. Even though he was banned by AAU he could still come in the building, still walk up to my court. I’m beyond pleased with AAU and Disney for taking the right stand.”

Sarah Powers-Barnhard in 2017. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Sarah Powers-Barnhard in 2017. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Tim Boyle | For the Sun-Times

The tournament begins next month at two locations in Florida.

“Mr. Butler is no longer welcome on our property given the controversy surrounding him and the fact that USA Volleyball and the AAU have banned him from participating in their activities,” said Andrea Finger, a Walt Disney World Resorts spokesperson.

The news is a key victory for Powers-Barnhard and yet another blow to Butler, a youth volleyball coach who built Sports Performance, a powerhouse club in Aurora, even as sexual abuse allegations dogged him for decades.

“This precedent of not letting him in the building is huge,” Powers-Barnhard said. “It isn’t just about him, it is about all of the abusers not being able to go back into the arena where their abuse occurred. We have to protect people.

“The only downfall for me is his team and his wife, who cyber shames me, is still there. So it is not completely comfortable for me. I’ll just focus on my team and get through it that way.”

Butler has never been charged with a crime. His accusers say that is because the relevant statutes of limitations ran out before they came forward.

“Rather than basing decisions on facts and law, certain organizations are submitting to pressure based on false information regarding continuously-evolving allegations from 30 years ago,” Butler’s lawyer, Danielle D’Ambrose said in a statement. “Rick Butler has never been charged with a crime and has never been sued in civil court by an alleged victim of abuse. … Rick Butler was a member in good standing with AAU for over 35 years and has been at the AAU championships for over 20 straight years since these allegations were made public.”

The AAU tournament is held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at Disney World and the nearby Orange County Convention Center, which could not confirm Butler’s ban. The AAU ignored multiple requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.

Marci Hamilton, CEO of child abuse think tank CHILD USA, said the new ban follows a letter she wrote to Disney’s general counsel about Butler’s potential presence at its facility. She said she was later assured Butler would not be allowed at either venue.

Speaking Wednesday to the Sun-Times, she said organizations should face a temporary ban from the tournament if they bring someone to the facility who puts youth athletes in danger.

“I believe that Disney has the capacity here to be a leader in the country,” Hamilton said.

The AAU “permanently disqualified” Butler from participating in its activities last February. That move followed a ban by volleyball’s national governing body, USA Volleyball, and it prompted another ban by the Junior Volleyball Association.

Butler also now faces a proposed class-action lawsuit that claims he “used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls.” The claims, including those of Powers-Barnhard, date back to the 1980s. Many of them first surfaced in the 1990s.

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported the allegations of another accuser in the November series “Net Pains.” More details surfaced in the lawsuit.

Butler has also recently been discussed at legislative hearings at the state and federal level. Powers-Barnhard complained in a state Senate hearing this month that Butler continues to purchase spectator passes to attend volleyball matches.

“My abuser’s still there in the arena, participating off to the side” Powers-Barnhard told a Senate task force.

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