Former horse-rider Gitta Schwarz can no longer practice what was once her biggest passion. Nowadays, the thought of a stable is enough to ensure her a sleepless night of tears and traumatic memories.
Schwarz was 15 when she was first sexually abused. Twice or three times a week she went riding, and twice or three times a week she was cornered, molested, coerced into sexual relations with her horse-riding coach, a man in his mid-60s.
"I couldn't have told anyone in the club, because I knew how well-respected he was,” Schwarz told the audience in Berlinat the public hearing of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse. She suffered in silence for months before deciding to tell her parents. Her father's reaction, as she told the hearing, broke the last of her strength. He refused to believe her. She continued to attend the club as if nothing had happened, but the abuse was taking its toll on her moods and her health. Eventually her mother brought her to a doctor, whose advice went no further than: give up horse-riding.
‘Guilt, shame, and pressure'
Schwarz was one of several victims of sexual abuse to tell Tuesday's hearing that children need independent contact points, outside the context of their sports clubs or families, to protect them. Without these, according to several speakers at the hearing, the current "system of guilt, shame, and pressure to perform” traps young athletes in abusive situations and encourages them to remain silent about their experiences.
The sporting environment can put children at risk in several other ways, as shown by responses to the VOICE Project, an EU-supported initiative to collect the stories of young sportspeople who have been subjected to sexual exploitation. One victim was regularly reminded by an abusive coach just how he lucky he was to have a place in his squad, how many others would be ready to leap into his position if he left. Others, as explained by Bettina Rulofs of the University of Wuppertal, found it difficult to criticise abusers who enjoyed good reputations in their clubs, as tireless volunteers or talented coaches. Exploitative adults are also offered cover, explained Rulofs, by "unclear boundaries” between ordinary physical contact and sexual assault.
Transformation in culture required
Tuesday's event gave victims, representatives of sporting bodies, politicians, and researchers an opportunity to discuss ways in which children could be better protected from exploitation in sport. At the same time, they called for a candid approach to past cases of abuse, in order to foster a culture of openness in which victims are comfortable speaking up. Ultimately, said Petra Tzschoppe, Vice President of the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB), nothing short of a transformation in culture was required. In the name of her own Federation, she apologised to everyone who had ever been subjected to sexual abuse in a sporting context.
The DOSB, as well as the German Football Association (DFB) have been criticised recently for the limited scope of financial compensation they offer to victims of sexual abuse. For Marie Dinkel, a 24-year-old judoka who was abused by her judo coach as an 11-year-old, financial reparations are less important than investment in preventative measures. Dinkel is now a judo coach herself, and told the hearing that coaches are not properly sensitised to the topic in their own training.
The Commission first called for victims from the world of sport to come forward and tell their stories in May last year. Since then, only around a hundred have done so. "We estimate that there are a large number of unreported cases,”said chairwoman Dr. Sabine Andresen.
It took Schwarz 30 years to re-tell the story of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her horse-riding coach. Authorities in German sport face the challenge of ensuring that victims feel empowered to talk about their experiences. As Tobias Wiemann of the German Interior Ministry told the hearing, there can be no prevention without an honest and thorough confrontation with the mistakes of the past.