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Sport used as cover for child sexual abuse, survivors tell Inquiry

18 June 2020

The Inquiry has published new research into child sexual abuse in sports, which finds that coaches and instructors exploited children’s vulnerabilities in order to groom and abuse them.

Based on the accounts of victims and survivors who came forward to the Truth Project, the report analyses experiences of abuse across a wide range of sports such as angling, boxing, canoeing, football, gymnastics, ice skating and swimming. 

The report provides an insight into abuse in sport being perpetrated at a grassroots level; for almost all participants, the sport was something they took part in as a hobby and for enjoyment, with some describing it as providing a diversion from a difficult home life.

Survivors spoke of being subjected to a wide range of sexually abusive behaviour, with some describing the abuse as being perpetrated under the guise of sporting activity, for example whilst swimming or in the foam pit in gymnastics.

"Like, say you'd be on any sort of residential trip, they'd be running in showers, taking pictures of the children naked, whilst they were having a shower. And it was all done out of like a laugh and joke.”

Truth Project participant abused in a sports context

The report finds that grooming was common; as well as trips away and gifts, participants describe perpetrators trying to normalise certain behaviours through overly physical contact, sexualised comments or being shown pornographic material. 

Some perpetrators also gave the children they abused particular privileges or rewards within the sports club, such as allowing them to play in better teams. 

“As much as he was abusing me, he'd then put me in positions of power. So, I'd go to conferences, and he'd turn up and he was going to that conference. You know, always had me in his sights.”  

Truth Project participant abused in a sports context

The report identifies certain factors which enabled abuse to take place, including overnight stays with children, a lack of supervision and oversight of adults working in sports, particularly those operating as leaders, private coaches or instructors.

Victims highlighted the extensive impacts of the abuse on multiple areas of their lives, with many describing how decades later this still affects them on a daily basis. 

“'s horrendous. You carry it with you forever. And it's like when I switched on and realised that it's the vulnerability of everything, you know. For the rest of your life you'll feel vulnerable.” 

Truth Project participant abused in a sports context

Many survivors described barriers preventing them from speaking out, such as having no-one to tell, feelings of guilt and shame and the lack of open conversation about sexual abuse in sport. Where they were able to disclose, they were often ignored, disbelieved or blamed themselves.

Dr Sophia King, Principal Researcher at the Inquiry said:

“In this report, victims and survivors describe how perpetrators in sports contexts would create opportunities for abuse, which often took place under the guise of sporting activity. Participants’ accounts were examined to provide a more in-depth insight into abuse in these contexts, with many reporting that they were groomed as a way to normalise what was happening. 

“It’s clear that not having anyone to disclose to was a significant obstacle to children reporting abuse, as were feelings of shame, guilt and a fear of not being believed.”

Paul Stewart, former professional footballer for Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and England, said:

“Whist the physical and sexual abuse I experienced as a child in a sports setting was horrendous, for me it was the impact it had in later life. It stripped me of everything - the ability to love and trust, and it also left me constantly thinking of a way out.

"It's important that survivors have the opportunity to come forward if they wish to do so, and the Truth Project provides that place to share an experience, free from judgement.  

"I hope this report can help to contribute to a more open conversation about abuse in sport at all levels, and shines a light on experiences like mine. We need to ensure the words that survivors have shared with the Truth Project are learnt from, and listened to."



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