abuse in sport

On a global level, clerical sexual abuse was not reined in, and paedophile priests were shifted from parish to parish, allowing them to continue their abuse. Ireland has been in the spotlight for the last few years, and the torturous efforts to bring closure to this unspeakable saga have brought immense pain to victims there. The wounds of victims are extremely raw, and will remain so, until they feel that sufficient reparation, full acknowledgement, full accountability, and an acceptable apology have been made. Their wounds are also kept raw by the drip feed of sexual abuse revelations that occur on a frequent basis. I hope that closure can be brought to this suffering, and we will never again have to read the gruesome details of how children were abused by those in authority, who had a powerful sense of entitlement and power. It is to be welcomed that many of these children, long forgotten, have emerged as adults, to reclaim some power. Many, unfortunately, have become alcoholics or committed suicide. I have no doubt, too, that religious and clergy who had no part in this dreadful story and who had no knowledge that it was happening, will find some relief from their own torture, if it is finally ‘resolved’. I have spoken to victims, however, who feel that these clergy should have spoken in support of sufferers, when knowledge of clerical abuse became widespread.
In recent years, we have become aware of children being abused by sports coaches, although much more research is required. When we consider the large number of young people involved in sport, the statistics for those who experienced some type of sexual abuse are shocking. A 2004 study of female athletes in Norway shows that 51% experienced sexual harassment. A 1993 study in the UK found that 43% of female athletes were subject to sexual abuse, and a study in Australia found that 31% of female and 21% of male athletes were sexually abused. Similar statistics are available for other countries.
Only recently have governments focused on child protection in sport. The UK was the first country to establish a specific centre for this. The denial of clerical abuse was mirrored by similar denial of abuse by sports coaches. Any mention of sexual abuse in a sport’s context was taboo, because of a set of beliefs about sport. There was a fundamental belief that sport was a morally pure type of behaviour embodying the principle of fair play. One dangerous belief was that of male privilege over females. Parents need to be aware that talented athletes are more at risk of sexual grooming and abuse than others. Celia Brackenridge, an expert on aspects of sexual abuse in sport, argues that the power balance changes in favour of coaches as talented athletes reach the ‘training to win’ stage. Abuse in sport runs on a continuum, partly facilitated by the intimacy of the coach or mentor with athletes. This intimacy moves from non-abusive behaviour to grooming and the gradual lowering of the athletes’ boundaries, and finally to sexual abuse. Much depends on the vulnerability of the athlete, the inclinations of the coach, and the opportunities within the sporting organisation to abuse.
What is shocking about abuse by sports coaches, and particularly clerical sexual abuse, is that so few have abused so many. However, despite our pain and rage when reading these reports, it is important in the interests of child protection to realise that at least 80% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members – parents (including foster parents), grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, as well as close family friends, strangers, and people in authority. It is worrying that a large number of sexual abusers attempt or commit their first sexual assault by the age of 16.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press

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