7 lessons for sport in child protection 
In December 2017 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final reports, including volume 14 on sport, recreation, arts, culture, community and hobby groups. Importantly for sport, volume 14 identifies common failings of sporting organisations and makes recommendations to help prevent child abuse and, if it does occur, help ensure there are effective responses in place.
There are many lessons for sport here, not only in the context of the recommendations, but also in the process and general findings of the Royal Commissions work. In this article we draw out some of these lessons to help you think about and develop practical solutions that suit your organisation.  
Play by the Rules featured in one of the four recommendations coming out of volume 14. We were also involved in the round table discussions with other sectors following the series of public and private hearings. It was clear that sport is, in many respects, doing very well in terms of existing governance practices, education programs and resources on child safety. At the same time we should also recognise that there is still much work to be done and that sport, by its very nature, is an environment exposed to risk. 
The Royal Commission held consultations with children and young people directly. They listened to their views on what keeps sport safe. These included:
  • relationships with adults – young people consider continuity of contact to be very important in facilitating trust between children and adults, and said the coach is often the person they will go to if they have a concern.
  • transport – young people considered transport to and from sport a safety issue and told the Royal Commission that most of the time they would get a lift with whomever they could, including their coaches.
  • staff – young women told the Royal Commission that they are more comfortable in sport and recreation when there are female staff, and young men said they were equally comfortable with male or female staff.
  • image publication – some young people told the Royal Commission that they did not have a problem with image publication in sports contexts on the field or in public performance spaces, provided they had been consulted and retained the right to have something removed.

Lesson 1: Listen to the voices of children and young people in your organisation. Talk with them about what makes them feel safe.

The Commission held private sessions with 408 survivors of child sexual abuse in sport and recreation settings. Significantly, the majority said the abuse occurred for up to 12 months with multiple instances of abuse in that period. In most of these cases abuses were carried out by a single male adult perpetrator in a position of power, such as an instructor, leader or coach. 
Given that information there is still no typical profile of a perpetrator. The Commission noted that, similar to other institutional settings, perpetrators had diverse motivations and behaviours.  
As to where the abuse occurred – the Commission were told that common places were:
  • camps
  • overnight competitions and excursions
  • overnight stays
  • billeting and hosting environments
  • travel arrangements
  • change rooms
  • concealed or obscured environments
  • the internet and associated technologies that create opportunities for perpetrators to groom children outside the physical boundaries of sport

Lesson 2: Recognise that there is no ‘typical perpetrator’ or place where abuse occurs while at the same time understand that some situations are more high risk than others, for example, where a male coach regularly meets with a female athlete in obscured environments.

Understanding risk factors is very important for sports organisations. Clearly, if a club or association can identify where the risks are then they are in a much better position to prevent abuse occurring. Of the 354 victims of child sexual abuse in sport and recreation that provided information to the Commission, 37% identified grooming as a factor in the abuse. 
Common grooming strategies described were:
  • coaching relationships – perpetrators can exploit their power and authority over children through the private and exclusive coach or instructor relationship.
  • inappropriate activity and adult material – survivors of child sexual abuse told the Royal Commission that alcohol and other enticements were used by perpetrators as a form of grooming.
  • erosion of interpersonal boundaries – coaches can shift the interpersonal boundaries from the acceptable (for example, legitimate touching to correct a swim stroke) to the inappropriate.
  • targeting vulnerability – research indicates that young athletes who are experiencing difficulties in their home life can be targets for perpetrators. 
  • valuing performance over child safety – some environments prioritised performance over the best interests of children and pursued winning at all costs.

Lesson 3: Understand your risk factors. Discuss them and write them down. Be aware of the types of relationships that exist at your club and watch out for any grooming indicators. 

Interestingly, the Royal Commission identified societal and community cultures as risk factors for child sexual abuse in sport and recreation settings. This presents a real challenge to clubs and associations, particularly where cultures have been developed over long periods of time. Cultures though, are not intangible. You can see and hear a culture. The challenge is recognizing dominant negative cultures and doing something about them. The Royal Commission provided some useful guidance in this respect:

  • normalised violence and harassment – in hyper-competitive sporting contexts, violent and aggressive behaviours such as bullying and hazing can become normalised. 
  • normalised sexualised cultures – for example, regular sexualised jokes and banter.
  • valuing adults over children – when sport and recreation institutions are driven by results and the pursuit of excellence, they may overlook potential harms in valuing coaches and instructors over the wellbeing of the child.
  • level of involvement – children who have a high level of involvement in institutional settings may be at greater risk of abuse than other children.

Lesson 4: Talk about culture. Identify what behaviours and words dictate and shape culture at your club. Are they a risk factor?

The Royal Commission identified different ways in which sport organisations have not kept children and young people safe. One of these are the barriers children and young people had to overcome before they were able to disclose their experiences. These included: 
  • fear of not being believed – survivors who feared not being believed because they felt the abusing adult had greater credibility and power. 
  • fear of consequences in small or close-knit communities – the particular dynamics in small towns and communities can make disclosure of abuse especially difficult.
  • feelings of shame and embarrassment – in sport, strength and aggression may be viewed as essential qualities of the male athlete, while the disclosure of harassment and abuse experiences may be associated with weakness.
  • uncertainty about what is abusive – a child may feel uncertain about what is abusive where the activity necessarily involves direct physical contact, for example, routine post-training massages.
  • fear of negative impacts on future success – children may fear disclosing sexual abuse if they believe it will jeopardise their potential for success or ability to continue their much-loved activity.
While having robust complaint handling procedures in place is important with respect to dealing with disclosures, children and young people do not generally complain or disclose in a formal way. They may, given the right environment, have a conversation that uncovers some of the fears and uncertainties identified above. 

Lesson 5: Create an environment and expectation that supports children and young people to regularly discuss what makes them feel uncomfortable. Give them an opportunity to practice talking! Part of that involves setting expectations for adults to regularly monitor and support the wellbeing of children and young people.

A theme that ran through much of the Royal Commission report was leadership. Leadership with respect to governance and setting culture. Some of the common factors of leadership that led to child sexual abuse were: 

  • unchecked and unaccountable leaders and poor leadership – some leaders had unchecked control over the culture and practices in their institutions and operated without appropriate governance structures and accountability mechanisms
  • pursuit of excellence at any cost – an institution’s commitment to success may result in a lack of vigilance for, or challenge to, the inappropriate behaviour of an instructor or coach
  • protection of reputation as a primary concern – leaders can be motivated to protect the institution from legal action or negative publicity following disclosures of abuse
  • institutional cultures of physical abuse and bullying – these cultures can be expressed in a variety of ways, including physical aggression, verbal aggression and the use of sexualised language and homophobic taunts.
There were a range of sports organisations that had inadequate child protection policies, failed to provide education around the policies and did not keep appropriate records. All this amounted to poor leadership as a risk factor for child safety. 

Lesson 6: Proper governance structures and leadership that prioritizes child safety are important factors in keeping children and young people safe.

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson of all from the Royal Commission’s report into sport and recreation is the value of the report itself and the huge amount of work that went into producing it. It’s an important document for sport. One that needs to be taken seriously at all levels. There is a wealth of research and rich learnings from the experiences of people who, unfortunately, know all too well the devastating impact that child abuse can have on individuals, their families, friends and sporting clubs. This level of work has never been done before and will never be repeated. So it deserves our attention. 

Lesson 7: Read the Royal Commission final report into sport, recreation, arts, culture, community and hobby groups.