THOUSANDS of children involved in sport across Northern Ireland have been left more vulnerable to abuse after local politicians failed to close a loophole in the law, The Detail can reveal.
Justice Minister David Ford has decided not to amend the Sexual Offences Order to give stronger protection to young sports people – despite this move being strongly backed by a leading children’s charity and a number of key sporting groups.
The offence of Abuse of Trust was introduced in 2001 and criminalises consensual sexual activity between adults and children where the adult holds a position of trust or authority in certain designated positions – for example in schools, detention centres and residential homes.
The offence was mainly designed to protect young people aged 16 and 17 who, even though they are over the age of consent, are potentially vulnerable to sexual abuse from people in positions of trust and authority.
The NSPCC has been campaigning for abuse of trust to be extended to sporting organisations for over two years.
Since the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) – based in the NSPCC in Belfast – was founded 10 years ago a significant number of people have been convicted of child sexual abuse here and in the Republic of Ireland who were in positions of responsibility in relation to children in sport.
The CPSU deals with at least one case a month in Northern Ireland where concerns are raised about coaches/instructors developing relationships with young people.
In a different arena, it was reported yesterday (Sunday, March 13) that a Church of Ireland minister in Northern Ireland has been sacked for having an inappropriate relationship with a teenager.
A church disciplinary tribunal heard that the minister had email contact of a sexual nature with a person aged over 16-years-old and also that he had online contact of a sexual nature with other people.
In this case, it was the church that moved against one of its own. With the teenager over 16 and if the relationship was consensual, there is likely to be nothing the police can do.
After consideration by an ad hoc Assembly committee, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Justice, Minister David Ford decided in December not to amend the abuse of trust legislation to include sports coaches.
However, the NSPCC plans to continue to push for the amendment after the Assembly elections.
Jim Grattan is Child/Player Welfare Manager at the Irish Football Association (IFA). He said that it is essential for the legislation to be extended to sport.
He said: “The IFA has put two full time members of staff in place to deal with child protection and player welfare. We have to look after the kids and ideally would like to have a child welfare office at every club.
“I feel strongly that the legislation should be changed to include sports coaches because they have a huge influence on young people.
“The vast majority of people would never abuse their power and trust but a very slight minority do. When it comes to elite level, we also need to be mindful of the huge influence coaches have on young people.
“I would like to see coaches in the position where the situation is black and white. Currently, it is a grey area.
“If I am asked about a coach who is, for example 23, having a relationship with a girl who is 16 or 17, I would like to be able to say that you just do not do it and that is just the way it is.
“You can ask people to leave the club if they go against a code of conduct but it may not cost some people too much to just move on to somewhere else. Legislation would make people think twice.”
The CPSU’s Paul Stephenson said that calls to the unit have mainly centred on concerns about adult males in their 30s, 40s or older developing inappropriate relationships with young people or sending inappropriate text messages.
Examples of some Northern Ireland cases dealt with by CPSU include:
1. A parent complained about a sports coach in his mid 40s who was sending their 17-year-old daughter explicit text messages. The coach had also been asking another young person to have a relationship. Social Services was informed but took no action due to the age of the young person. The coach was banned from the sport but went on to obtain another sports coaching award from another sport and began coaching another female junior team. He has now been suspended from that club.
2. A sports coach in his early 30s was charged with rape and sexual grooming of a 16-year-old who he met when she was 14. He was not convicted of this offence but admitted to another concerning behaviour and inappropriate contact with the child. He was banned from the sport.
3. A sports coach in his mid 20s was charged with the rape of a 17 year old. He was not convicted but admitted having consensual sex with the girl. The sport’s body banned him from the sport for breaching their code of conduct. He subsequently challenged their decision on the grounds that he had not been convicted of the more serious charge of rape.
4. Parents complained to a governing body that a coach in his mid 20s had been having sex with their 16-year-old daughter. The PSNI decided to take no further action but advised the sport that he should no longer coach children. The coach admitted to breaching the sport’s code of conduct and was banned from the sport.
Paul said: “When we talk about abuse of trust, we talk about those who are in a position of authority and particularly within the sport coaches working with elite athletes, they have a great level of power and influence over young people.
“We would have some concerns that some voluntary sports organisations are probably not dealing with the issue appropriately.
“It’s very clear cut when it’s a legal matter, when they have to do something, whereas when it’s down to them they can certainly just move an individual on and that’s one of our concerns.
“Currently what we have in place is an agreement from Sport NI and DCAL to look at how we implement best practice. We want to make sure that organisations are made aware of the issues and that voluntary sports people know of the codes of practice that their organisations have in place, what it actually means to abuse their position of authority and what healthy relationships should be like.”
Currently sports organisations must deal with the issue through their code of practice as there are no legislative powers if children are over the age of consent and willingly participating in relationships.
Kate Hills, National Children’s Officer at Swim Ireland, said: “Abuse of trust is about a person in an authoritative position asserting their authority over children or young people in an inappropriate way.
“Once a young person is over the age of consent (in the Republic of Ireland this is 17) it is no longer a criminal offence to have a sexual relationship but there may well be a relationship developing because of an abuse of trust before this point, where the young person has been coerced into this position.
“In any sport we could have young coaches training athletes in their peer group, i.e. not much younger than themselves. This would be a vulnerable group of leaders.
“We, as in sports organisations, need to indicate that it is inappropriate for any sports leaders to have a relationship with young people where they are in a position of power or authority over them.
“If this is covered by legislation, it raises awareness amongst sports leaders and it makes it easier to control by setting clear boundaries.
“Swim Ireland would state as a best practice policy that sports leaders should not to be in relationships with their athletes. We would support a change to the legislation.”
In a letter to Sports Minister Nelson McCausland, dated December 8th 2010, Mr Ford said he had looked at report of the consultation with sports bodies and considered it to be “fully representative” of the range of sports in Northern Ireland.
DCAL had concluded that sports bodies had been willing, in principle, to support an extension of abuse of trust provisions to sports coaches but that they remained unconvinced of the need for extension and were more impressed by the decision not to extend the legislation in England.
Mr Ford said he had decided not to extend the positions of trust in the Sexual Offences Order 2008 to include sports coaches.
“I have concluded that the policy underpinning these offences was never designed to include positions outside of the strictly formal definition in the current legislation, and that to add sports coaches as a single group would be outside of the scope originally envisaged," the Minister said.
“That, along with the opposition of the sports bodies to being singled out in this way; the unclear nature of the evidence surrounding whether there is a real problem to be addressed; and the difficulties of defining a sports coach in legislation has led me to decide that I will not amend the current order.”
Mr Ford added that he believed that “administrative actions relating to child protection across all the areas within the DCAL remit” are “the sensible way forward”.
He concluded: “I hope this investigatory work proves to be of benefit in improving levels of protection for young people.”
Mr Ford supplied a written comment in response to questions from The Detail which echoed the comments in his letter to Mr McCausland but he turned down a request for an on camera interview.
The SDLP’s Declan O’Loan is vice-chair of the Assembly’s DCAL committee and was also a member of the ad hoc committee which first discussed amending the legislation.
He said: “I certainly do think that sports coaches should be included as a specifically named group in the sexual offences order.
“I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice has chosen at the moment to say that he wouldn’t include them as I think there is a gap in the legislation and it should be filled.
“There have been a number of very prominent offences which have come to light in relation to sporting situations. Sport is a very competitive arena and that can mean that a very strong and intense relationship can be built up between persons being coached and the coach.
“Coaches themselves are often top sports people with a history of tremendous success, so there can be an issue of hero worship among the young people and that can create vulnerability if it’s not used properly.
“For that reason, I think sports coaches and young people need the protection of a solid framework of law around what they are doing. I also think it would be perfectly possible to define sports coaches in a way that would stand up in court if the case ever came to court.”
Mr O’Loan said that he thinks that the new Assembly should look at the issue again.
He added: “I have had direct experience and was quite closely involved with a case where there was concern over the suitability of a person who was involved with sports coaching and that certainly factors into my thinking. It is absolutely vital that there are sound protections put in place for young people who are involved in sport.”
One mother in England got in touch with the NSPCC in Northern Ireland after her 16-year-old daughter left home to go and live with her sports coach. She found information about the CPSU online.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said: “I challenge Mr Ford to have spent a moment at Christmas with us and our confused and upset six-year-old child. Then he would see the fallout from the lack of a legal deterrent to sports coaches abusing their position of trust.”