FOR seven years – from the age of just 10 – Karen Leach was abused by her swimming coach.
She had hoped to swim for Ireland in the Olympics and spent hours training at the pool every day before and after school. It was her life.
But infamous paedophile coach Derry O’Rourke shattered her dreams and her childhood.
O’Rourke didn’t only destroy Karen’s life. His actions literally cost a life. Karen’s mum died by suicide just days after telling her daughter how much she loved her and how sorry she was for failing to look after her. Garda found her body in a canal.
There have also been times when life became unbearable for Karen and she too tried to take her own life but her young son has now given her a strong reason to live and a future together to fight for.
Karen, who has returned to study and hopes to become a counsellor, has a determination now to help others and to do whatever she can to ensure other young children are protected from predators in sport.
O’Rourke was already in prison when Karen’s complaint and those of five other females came to court in July 2000. He pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to seven years in prison to run concurrently with the sentences he was already serving.
He was released from prison in 2007 after serving nine years of a 12 years sentence for sexually abusing many young girls over an 18 year period.
In an interview with The Detail, Karen appealed to Justice Minister David Ford to do everything he can to protect young people involved in sport in Northern Ireland and she warned of the power coaches can have over young people in their care.
“My whole life was swimming, nothing else really mattered to me,” she said.
“He (O’Rourke) was God to me, to all the other swimmers, to everybody’s parents. What he said went because of my love of swimming and my dream to swim for Ireland in the Olympics. This man was my swimming coach and he was going to help me make my dream come true.
“He was very good at what he did, he got people to trust him and believe him, he was the Olympic coach, he looked after the Irish team, what he said went.
“His power and his position as a sports coach gave him brilliant opportunity to hurt me and the other swimmers. For a long time even after we first said that this had happened people believed him and not us. That was hard.”
Karen, now aged 41 and living just outside Dublin, said O’Rourke destroyed her life.
“He took everything that was important for me away including my mam. She took her life, heartbroken to find out what had happened to me as a little girl and I’ve had to work and fight very hard to even be sitting here today and to be well and to be alive.
“On the Thursday before she died she told me she loved me, she was sorry for what happened to me as a little girl, and then on the Monday morning I got a phone call from the Gards to tell me that a body had been taken out of the canal and it was my mam.
“My brothers lost their mother, my Dad lost his wife and his best friend and I have a beautiful son and nephews and nieces and they don’t have a nanny. It’s been hard and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to live through it.
“I would say he took the past thirty years of my life, I’ve been locked up in prison because of what he did to me.”
O’Rourke pleaded guilty at the trial.
Karen said: “He stared straight ahead and said ‘Guilty’. He didn’t care. I remember my whole body going weak and I put my head back and i just said ‘Oh my God, this is true, this happened to me, I’ve told the truth and they believe me, they believe me, I’m not mad, it’s true.’ It was very hard.”
Karen has called on Mr Ford to reconsider his decision not to extend abuse of trust legislation to sport.
“I wish somebody had done something to make sure there was protection there for me, but there wasn’t,” she said.
“I’ve lived in a prison cell for the past thirty years of my life, since I was ten because I had a dream to swim for Ireland, I put my whole heart and soul into my sport and my coach took advantage of that.
“I lost everything and now I’m working very hard to stay alive and to be well and healthy and to move on with my life.
“And all I say is that please if you’re in a position to protect children please don’t let any other child end up with a life like mine.”
And she urged anyone else suffering from abuse to get help.
“I know what it’s like to spend those dark lonely days on my own when I wasn’t able to talk to anybody and I was scared. I don’t want anyone else to feel or end up like that.
“You can’t do it on your own and you can’t carry it on your own, it’s too dark a secret, too deep a pain.
“That’s why I’m talking. I want other people to have freedom and peace in their life and not for it to destroy them, like it destroyed me. I just wanted to help other people and I don’t want it to happen again.”