Rape* is always going to be a controversial subject. The notoriously low conviction rates for rape are caused by the absence of witnesses, conclusive forensic evidence and often the substantially long period before a case is brought. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to prove the accused person committed the offence ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, which is the required criminal threshold test to meet in England and Wales.
Nevertheless, it is not impossible to secure a historical rape conviction, as evidenced by the string of cases brought against Jimmy Savile, who infamously used his TV and radio personality to sexually abuse victims. The extraordinary scale of abuse by Savile led to the creation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which looks into how UK institutions handle their duty of care to children. While Teresa May, as Home Secretary (as she was then), had the right intentions when she set up the inquiry, it has been plagued with failures, not least because of the continual resignations of the chairs of the board. While some argue that it is a waste of time and public money, I believe it is extremely important that there is an independent commission to review children’s welfare.
Why all the fuss?
Recently, more than 20 public figures (namely footballers) have openly disclosed stories about being raped by their football coaches whilst they were children. Although only 20 footballers have recently discussed their abuse publicly, over 860 calls to NSPCC alleging abuse have also been recorded. This suggests that there is, and has been, a frightening amount of sexual abuse present in our society. While rape cases are always despicable, these allegations are considered more aggravating because the perpetrators, such as Barry Bennell, have used their position of responsibility to force vulnerable children to partake in heinous acts.
Many boys grow up idolising footballers, playing football and dreaming of one day playing professionally. Most children quickly realise that it isn’t an easy road and you’ve got to start from the bottom and make your way up. These young and aspiring players do as much as they can to achieve their goals of becoming a professional footballer, such as begging their parents to let them train extra sessions on weekdays, eating healthily to keep fit and attend summer camps to benefit from expert coaching. With long and regular training sessions, it is almost inevitable that a relationship of trust forms between the players and their coach. However, once a coach has established that trust with a player, it becomes easier for them to manipulate their potential victims. If a young boy performs the sexual acts that the coach wants, then the coach will let him play in the game at the weekend. That’s seems fair right, give a little, take a little?
While most people would answer that question with a unequivocal ‘NO!’, the same cannot necessarily be said for a young, puzzled and trusting boy. Many children cannot comprehend the gravity of what is being asked of them and don’t necessarily realise it is not ‘normal’ for a coach to ask them to perform sexual acts. Under English law it is automatically rape of a child if the child is under 13 years old, regardless of whether or not the child consented. Children that young are legally deemed unable to give such consent. After being subject to sexual abuse, victims often have feelings of guilt and shame and do not confide in anyone. Therefore, it must have come as a long overdue relief for many of these victims when one footballer admitted the abuse he had been subject to, making it easier for others to finally allow themselves to admit the truth too. Not only does this have an overwhelming effect of unburdening victims, it also allows criminal investigations to be commenced against the alleged perpetrators, thus reducing the chance they can abuse again.
How could this have happened in the first place?
You might wonder when and where all this abuse was happening, as surely these children weren’t being abused on the streets in the public eye? I can’t say I have any personal experience relating to football practices and football academies, but I did grow up competing in trampoline competitions. While some competitions were nearby, others required staying overnight in a hotel, which I started doing without my mother when I was about 7 years old. I would be taken to competitions by my coach. This included long car rides, sharing the same hotel and being dropped off at my house in the evening. I saw my coach nearly as often as I saw my own mother and I had nothing but trust and respect for him.
Thankfully my coach never abused that position of trust. In fact, when I was about 13 years old he actively refused to take me to competitions alone, to thwart any allegations of indecency. However, no-one batted an eyelid over my coach spending time alone with any of the male gymnasts. Mostly because it didn’t occur to anyone that men might abuse victims of the same gender. It is therefore quite perceivable that there were many opportunities for coaches of all sports to take advantage of athletes of the same sex. As it was not a worry that many parents or officials had, this contributed to the difficulty in those victims coming forward to talk about the abuse.
It would be naive to think that there aren’t still coaches out there taking advantage of vulnerable athletes, but a change in social attitudes and awareness has helped reduce that number.
It is now pretty much mandatory requirement to have a Disclosure and Barring Service check before working with children in a professional environment. Jobs that involve activities with children generally require an enhanced DBS check and if they are ‘barred’, this will prevent them working with children. There are also an increasing numbers of welfare officers at many sports clubs and team events, who keep an eye on the behaviour of coaches and the wellbeing of children. Further, there has been welcomed legislation since much of the alleged abuse happened. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 widened the definition of ‘rape’ from the previous legislation to include penetration by the penis of someone’s mouth, as well as vagina or anus. This recognises that there are more ways in which a victim can be subject to abuse that warrants the stigma attached to the term ‘rapist’. The 2003 Act also has specific provisions relating to people who abuse positions of trust in order to commit sexual offences. Increased awareness of sexual abuse has led to more parents openly discussing these types of issues with children. Although we don’t want to end up living in a time when we are too scared to leave children out of sight, we must be alert to the ever increasing means of technology and the different ways in which sexual predators may abuse their position of trust.
*For the purposes of this blog the term ‘rape’ shall encompass other sexual offences such as assault by penetration and sexual assault.