Sexual abuse in sport  – Nassar and Volume 14 of the Royal Commission report– sports, recreational, arts, culture, community and hobby groups

In the week that saw Dr Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University and Olympic sports doctor sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing female gymnasts in the USA, it is timely to reflect on Volume 14 of the report of the Royal Commission (RC) which focuses on sports and recreational institutions.

The RC identified that there is a real challenge in ensuring child safety in sports and recreational institutions and this is due to the diverse nature of the sector – ranging from affiliated, grant maintained and well-funded, co-ordinated, well-regulated and managed institutions with compliance obligations to small informal not for profit voluntary and community groups and activities where there is a patent lack of policy, procedure, regulation and information.

The type of activities and institutions captured within sport and recreation is widely construed and encapsulates exercise groups, martial arts, cadets, outdoor activity, community and craft groups, music, tuition and cultural pursuits provided and supported by volunteers and parents amongst others.

In the private sessions 408 survivors (74.8% male and 25% female) told the RC about abuse in sports and recreational settings.

The forms of child sexual abuse described were as follows:

  • Penetrative and non-penetrative contact
  • Violation of privacy
  • Exposure to sexual acts and material,
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Non penetrative genital contact

In addition to claims of child sexual abuse there were also additional claims of physical abuse and emotional maltreatment.

Grooming was a factor for 131 of those interviewed and they described the following grooming strategies:-

  • Coaching relationships and exploitation of power and authority
  • Inappropriate activity and adult material – alcohol and other enticement
  • Erosion of interpersonal boundaries – a shift from demonstration of correct technique to inappropriate
  • Targeting vulnerability, family conflict, family violence, or family breakup
  • Valuing Performance as a priority over safety

It was also noted that sports and recreational institutions are open to broader cultural influences when compared to other institutions such as schools and as a result they give rise to an increased risk of child sexual abuse by:

  • Normalising violence/harassment – hyper-competitive context, bullying and hazing
  • Normalising Sexual Cultures – dance environments
  • Valuing Adult Coaches and Instructors over the wellbeing of the child
  • Higher level of involvement (frequent practice) gives rise to a higher level of risk of abuse.

The impact of child sexual abuse in this setting is heightened and can be devastating for those involved and includes:

  • Disengagement
  • Isolation
  • Mental and emotional harm
  • Difficulties forming inter-personal relationships
  • Impact on family and carers (secondary victims)
  • Educational, economic and employment

The RC recognised sport and recreational activities can play an important role is detecting and preventing abuse and consequently there is a need to encourage positive participation whilst seeking to adopt appropriate child safe measures so as not to overburden small clubs and organisations.

The RC also recognised that there was a lack of consistency and a plethora of approaches adopted across different states and territories with a distinct lack of literature and information specifically related to abuse in sport and recreational activities.

They found incidents of reporting abuse and preventative strategies were minimal. Investigation and complaint handling was poor and insensitively handled.

The RC identified the following barriers to disclosure of child sexual abuse:

  •  Fear of not being believed
  • Dynamics of small towns and communities
  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Negative impact on future success

The RC also identified factors that contributed and/or enabled the child sexual abuse to take place and they are indeed factors that have been identified in many previous blogs on this topic. These are:

  • Unchecked/unaccountable leaders and poor leadership
  • Pursuit of excellence at any cost/absence of challenge
  • Primary concern was protection of reputation
  • Physical and bullying cultures
  • Absence of effective child protection policies or failure to follow or not understand
  • No guidance provided to members, absence of information and communication of procedures
  • High turnover of personnel
  • Poor record keeping and documentation/sharing of information

Some of the interesting facts revealed about the perpetrators are that almost 95% of them were adults and those adults were overwhelmingly male.  37% of the perpetrators were youth group leaders and most of them were scout leaders.

The RC has identified 10 National Mandatory Child Safe Standards to be implemented by all institutions. These address the identified risks and are intended to be reinforced and underpinned by a national resource to support organisations and participants and prioritise child safety. The RC has called for the establishment of a National Office for Child Safety, with a Sports and Recreational Advisory Committee to advise the National Office for Child Safety.

Many of the issues connected with the abuse by Dr Nassar, are those which are highlighted in the RC report. The first public allegations were made against him in 2000 by a US Olympic bronze medallist, however the response to that disclosure was clearly inadequate. 156 women gave testimony over the past week at his sentencing hearing and many of their testimonies showed that, notwithstanding the earlier report, he has, in the past 17 years, been able to continue to abuse girls and young women in plain sight.

With the publication of the RC report, the ongoing trial of Barry Bennal and, the conviction of Dr Nassar there can be no doubt that the sports sector like many others has much yet to do to make itself safe for children.

Written by Sharon Moohan and Jagdeep Hayre, partners at BLM


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