It is a sad truth that paedophiles are drawn to environments where there are children.
Although a lot of work has been carried out over the last 20 years or so to protect children and young people, unfortunately those with wicked intent, still manage to evade the protective barriers and gain access, to exploit children for their own sexual gratification. Therefore, we cannot let down our guard or become complacent; whatever action is taken there will always remain a risk that sexual offenders will seek to exploit gaps in the measures taken by organisations to protect children and young people.
Risk to Young Athletes
The nature of sport often requires close contact and therefore any sport, including an athletics environment, can give adults the opportunity of unsupervised access to children. Whether it is in tennis, football, rugby, swimming, gymnastics or kickboxing , sport will frequently involve some element of physical touching. For the most part, this will be reasonable, necessary, acceptable and understood as being a requirement for the development of the young athlete. Unfortunately, paedophiles will manipulate these genuine reasons to ensnare and sexually abuse children. Sports coaches can blur the boundaries of physical contact, touching children in a sexual way under the guise of coaching and advice.
Status of sports coach
Understandably, children and young people will look to adults, recognising their authority and experience, particularly in a sporting environment; perhaps, hang on their every word in order to reach their objective of becoming a great athlete.
If a young athlete is unsure about what is being said to them or what they are being asked to do, they may be reluctant to speak out, for fear that challenging a sports coach may result in them not reaching their ambition, or being overlooked by the coach. With young athletes, like any sports people, being keen to succeed and please their coach, they may be inclined to do whatever their coach asks, even if they are uncomfortable. The child may consider themselves to blame for the relationship. This is never true, but is manipulation used by paedophiles to make the victim survivor feel responsible.
What type of children do sports coaches assault?
We know that paedophiles will seek out vulnerable children, because they may be easier to exploit. However, it does not follow that children from a strong family unit are out of reach of sexual offenders. The Truth Project, part of the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse, in its report, “Child sexual abuse in sports” published research which revealed victim survivors of sports coaches sexual abuse came from a range of family and social backgrounds. Some came from stable and supportive families, describing happy childhood and good friends. Therefore, it is important to understand that it is not only the most vulnerable children that are susceptible to childhood sexual abuse from sports coaches.
What techniques do paedophiles use to gain access to young athletes?
The Truth Project’s report into Child Sexual Abuse in Sports, (part of the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse) revealed that the enabling factors to perpetrate abuse in sport were similar to those found in other areas. They include; perpetrators actively approaching parents outside of the sports context to look after or take children out unsupervised; perpetrators arranging overnight stays with children; and a lack of supervision or oversight of adults working in sports, particularly those operating as leaders or as private coaches or instructors.
Positions of trust
Those who teach, care and, in the broadest sense, educate our children, hold positions of trust. Although it is illegal for teachers, as an example, not to engage in sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old, the current legislation is narrow, in that it does not extend to sports coaches. A BBC investigation, published in July 2020, revealed that there were more than 160 cases of sports coaches engaging in sexual activity with a 16, or 17 year old in their care, since 2016. The Guardian newspaper reported that a freedom of information request found that between 2014 and 2018, there were 653 cases in which adults who could be regarded as being in a position of trust, had a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old. Of the 495 cases in which the adult’s role was recorded, the majority were in sport and the data showed such incidents had increased. This is a hole that needs to be plugged because, at the present time it is not illegal for a sports coach to engage in a sexual relationship with one of their athletes. Hopefully, this hole is soon to be filled following the introduction of a bill in Parliament to amend and extend the current legislation to make “sports coach” a position of trust for the purposes of child sexual offences which, if passed, will give greater protection to young athletes. The Bill is currently proceeding through Parliament and is due to have its Second Reading on the 11 September 2020.
How Do We Protect Young Athletes From paedophiles?
In addition to amending the existing law, we should continue to be vigilant. Those in pursuit of sexual abuse will not necessarily take notice of the law, but seek to do whatever is necessary to achieve sexual gratification. Therefore, in addition to safeguarding procedures, guidance, protocols and checks, we must use our eyes and ears. If we see or hear something that does not sound quite right, whether from our own senses or from hearing an account from a child, we should ask questions and challenge. It may be uncomfortable to ask questions of an individual about their behaviour, but we must not shy away, when the safety of a child is at stake.
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