The Government is under mounting pressure to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child sexual abuse after the broadcaster Charlie Webster was contacted by thousands of people within a week of her documentary into athletics.
Webster, who was abused by her athletics coach Paul North when she was 15, has been inundated with messages from men and women, ranging from teenagers to adults now in their sixties, who detailed abuse they suffered by coaches and a “cover-up” culture across British sport. As well as hearing from survivors who now feel ready to share their experiences, and four more people with stories of North’s abuse, Webster has experienced indirect attempts over recent days by a small group of “known abusers” to “silence” her.
The group Kyniska Advocacy, which campaigns for a safe environment for women in sport, has this week highlighted and reported inappropriate and offensive messages on social media from people within athletics.
Webster has also been contacted by people with experiences of abuse in swimming, karate and gymnastics. The pattern, she says, is of victims being “ignored” and met with “a culture of fear and closing of ranks”.
These coaches can then move between clubs or even different sports and prey on new victims. At present, there is no legal requirement for people working with children to report suspicions of child abuse to the police. “If there is not a will to report, that is where mandatory reporting has to come in,” Webster said.
“If there is no moral ethic to report, then we clearly have to have a legal duty to report. A lot of organising bodies are just dealing with these things themselves. And these are criminal acts.
“A coach can leave before they get barred. The allegations can be made, they can quietly go and nobody will ever know. If they get a temporary ban of one year, is that going to stop them? Even if they get barred, there are loopholes around DBS checks. There is no information sharing protocols.
“There has to be a complete ‘scrapping and start again’ attitude to DBS checks and certain recording of things. What they have now is clearly not working.”
Webster’s BBC film, Nowhere to Run: Abused by Our Coach, follows her attempt to track down former team-mates and friends from her running group in Sheffield. Webster, now 38, publicly revealed in 2014 that she had been abused.
Webster wants a central licensing system so that information can be shared across different sports, clubs and settings. She wants greater transparency on the status of investigations and complaints. She also wants governing bodies such as UK Athletics to proactively reach out to acknowledge and support those people who have been abused. “It’s not the past for all these people who have been let down – it’s their present that they are having to deal with,” she said.
UK Athletics said that it has overhauled its safeguarding processes over the past year and that they now implement a policy of mandatory reporting to anyone currently under 18. Although they advise and support adults to report incidents to the police, complaints are not automatically taken to the police even if a victim is describing an incident from when they were below the age of 18.
“The process of when reporting is considered mandatory or not is an inconsistent and at times divisive matter across sport and we would urge all the relevant bodies to work together to create a universal and consistent policy,” said a UKA statement. Chief executive Joanna Coates said that she was committed to a zero-tolerance approach to sanctions, including lifetime bans. Sanctions, however, are ultimately determined by independent panels.
The Government considered mandatory reporting between 2016 and 2018 but concluded that there was not “clear evidence” to show improved outcomes for children.
A review into the DBS system has been commissioned by the government, who have not ruled out legislation to enact formal registration and regulation to support their safeguarding guidance. Webster is ready to work with the government and sports governing bodies but stressed the urgency of the situation. “There can’t be another film in 10 years time saying the same things,” she said. “I feel a real responsibility that this is a legacy and not a moment.”
- Nowhere To Run: Abused By Our Coach is now available on BBC iPlayer