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Child sexual abuse in sport: Insights from a survivor/ally research team

Aurélie Pankowiak and Mary Woessner holding 'survivor' and 'ally' signs
Copyrights: Aurélie Pankowiak

Child sexual abuse in sport: Insights from a survivor/ally research team

How lived experience of surviving the consequences of child sexual abuse in sport led us to develop research in the field.

I only started understanding that I had been sexually abused as a child by my basketball coach about 10 years after the abuse, in 2017. At that time, I was in the middle of my PhD in Paralympic Sport Policy at Victoria University in Australia and had to take a break from my studies because of post-traumatic stress. My way of combatting the pain was to share my story and to learn about how the problem of child sexual abuse in sport could be tackled.

I first talked publicly about my personal story in 2018, both on my website and in the news in France, and I decided to put my research skills into action. Together with my friend and colleague Dr. Mary Woessner we spent our evenings and weekends studying the complexities of this issue. As we read more on violence in sport, we realised there is so much we do not know. We sought out discussions with leaders in the field, worked with media initiatives, and developed a research team with experts in sociology and criminology on the topic of violence (emotional, physical and sexual) against children in sport. Below we share some insights from our journey so far.

Despite my story being picked up by newspapers and the radio in France, it did not gain much traction. Maybe my story didn’t spread because I was not a high-performance athlete. Maybe it was because it had been 10 years, or maybe it was because society was just not ready yet. The furore there had once been around the USA gymnastics doctor, Nassar, who was convicted for decades of abuse against athletes, did not create the lasting wider public debate on child abuse in the sporting institution I was hoping for; at least we noticed it did not reach France or Australia. Mary and I wondered what it would take to bring the spotlight onto this issue. This all changed when the silence was broken again, three weeks ago, in France.

I was relieved when the French mass media covered the story of Sarah Abitbol, a professional ice skater who endured years of sexual abuse perpetuated against her by her coach. Similar to the story of Nassar, who highlighted the administration's failure to protect children in USA Gymnastics, Sarah’s story highlighted dysfunctions in the French Federation of Ice Sports. This is one of the first things Mary and I have noted. Child abuse in sport is not only an individual issue, it is also a systemic one. This means that sporting organisations and government sport policies have a great role to play in protecting children.

As terrible as it is to read the many stories of child abuse in sport, seeing the stories in the media is a positive in and of itself. In order to conquer such a complex social problem, we must remove the taboo of the topic by openly discussing it, to enable healing, greater understanding and work on prevention.

Mary and I have been living in Australia for five years. In contrast to the stories breaking in France and Europe, Australia, one of the most sporting nations in the world, is plagued by relative silence on the issue. However, this will soon change. Play by the Rules is a national and state government collaboration that will later this year launch a national media campaign to address child abuse in sport, called 'Start to Talk'. This initiative was inspired by the campaign of the Council of Europe. The campaign has many goals, but as the name suggests, the key one is to encourage people to 'Start to Talk' about violence against children in sport. Mary and I both sit on the advisory committee for this campaign as researchers. We are hopeful that this campaign will initiate discussions at the individual, familial, community and government level in Australia. We need champions at all levels in order to effect change.

Finally, on an international level, one of the biggest challenges in tackling the wicked problem of violence against children is the siloed work many researchers are conducting. Abuse in sport requires and deserves a collective and multi-disciplinary approach. In an effort to address this, Mary and I joined a group of international research experts in this field called IRNOVIS (International Research Network on Violence and Integrity in Sport). The group will first convene at the 2020 Safe Sport International Conference in Quebec this April to discuss an innovative and collaborative way forward for research and policymaking in this field.

Child prevention and safeguarding strategies are increasingly on the agenda of a number of sport organisations and governments across the world. Ensuring that all children are safe will be a whole of society effort. We are hopeful that with the increased attention given to violence against children in sport by the media, the advocacy and support of policymakers, the attention of dedicated researchers and the support from and awareness of the local communities, we are heading in the right direction.

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Article type

News

Author

Aurélie Pankowiak, Dr Mary Woessner

Published

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 13:18