The World Cup will take place over the summer, with the mood of much of the nation dependent on England’s performance, starting with their first match on 18th June. However, since 2016 the sporting world has seen many headlines about abuse.
In November 2016 former footballer Andy Woodward wavered his right to anonymity and revealed the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a coach when he was part of Crewe Alexandra’s junior set-up. Over the next year, 784 victims came forward linked to 331 clubs across the country from grassroots football to the Premier League. In February this year, football coach Barry Bennell was sentenced to 30 years in prison for child sexual abuse. Last month it was revealed that Chelsea Football Club had become the first club to issue a pay-out to an alleged victim since the extent of football’s scandal was exposed. Football has not been the only sport with abuse revelations. In America, Larry Nassar, the once-renowned doctor for USA Gymnastics, was sentenced for ‘40 to 125 years’ in prison for sexual abuse. Nassar admitted using his position as a trusted doctor to sexually abuse young gymnasts under the guise of providing medical treatment.
There has been action taken in the football world to deal with the issues. Sports minister Tracey Crouch said last year she would change the law, with sexual relationships between sports coaches and 16- and 17-year-olds in their care to be made illegal. Manchester City and Chelsea have long been conducting their own QC-led investigations. In March, TV presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker promoted the ‘It’s a Penalty’ campaign, which uses major sporting events to raise awareness to prevent the abuse of children and provide a mechanism to report concerns. The campaign’s sporting ambassadors also include Usain Bolt, Denise Lewis and Cathy Freeman.
However, despite the action taken by clubs and the government, evidence suggests the footballing, as well as, gymnastics authorities did not react quickly to allegations. A December 2016 BBC article said: “Ian Ackley, who was abused by a man with links to Manchester City, said his father’s calls for better protection ‘fell on deaf ears’. Separately, a charity has claimed the FA was too slow to implement criminal record checks in the 1990s, which may have placed children at risk.” Ian Ackley told the BBC his father felt the FA and other organisations were ‘brushing off’ attempts to improve safety in the game at the time. He said: “The replies were dismissive at best. They were always alluding to the fact it was somebody’s else’s problem.”
A similar situation appeared in the Larry Nassar case. The Indy Star, the newspaper that broke the story, wrote: “Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.”
There is much in common between sport and faith in terms of risks presented to children where safeguarding has not previously been taken seriously. Much of the child abuse is perpetrated by those who hold positions of trust and authority. In church and sport, a huge personal and emotional investment is made by the child in the adult. This provides opportunities for abuse to take place and enables the abuser to wield power over their victim that maintains their compliance and silence. There are no easy answers to these problems. However, in response to the scandals in the church and USA gymnastics, both Archbishop Welby and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander spoke about putting obedience to Jesus above reputations. The Archbishop told the IICSA: “The reputation of the Church, the reputation of a person, the reputation of an institution is as nothing compared to the call to obey God in Jesus Christ in the way we love and care for people. Everything that goes against that will in the end destroy the Church.” Rachael Denhollander told Christianity Today: “Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.”