An academic from Edge Hill University has just returned from the final conference of a unique project aimed at supporting victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in sport.

Dr Mike Hartill, Reader in the Sociology of Sport, initiated the EU-funded project ‘Voices for Truth and Dignity’ (VOICE) in 2015. The project, led by the German Sport University, Cologne, is a collaboration between seven European universities plus sport agencies and victim-support organisations.

VOICE has collected stories from ‘survivors’ across many sports including high-profile professional athletes such as Spain’s Olympic gymnast Gloria Viseras.

Over 130 people from 16 European countries participated in the conference, where they listened to the experiences of ‘survivors’ and the messages they wanted to share with policy makers about prevention of abuse in sport.

At the centre of the project was an interview study with 72 people affected by sexual violence in sport – the most extensive of its kind so far. Seven researchers from universities in Europe were involved in the interviews, and Mike, along with Bettina Rulofs (German Sport University Cologne) presented the preliminary findings during the conference.

Around 70 per cent of those interviewed were female, and 30 per cent male. The offenders are almost exclusively male and in 90 per cent of the investigated cases they are coaches or other responsible adults. The abuse occurred in a wide range of sports, with most occurring in a football setting.

One of the key messages of the conference was the need for sport organisations to go beyond listening to actively working with victims of sexual violence and including them in a meaningful way. During the closing speech Mike emphasized that “acknowledging abuse in sport and the lives of those who have suffered abuse has to be a genuine process – based on partnership, truth and dignity – not simply a one-off event.”

Gloria Viseras, a member of the steering committee of the project and former Spanish Olympian in gymnastics said:

“Participating in the VOICE project has helped us to understand how strong our voices are and how much we survivors can help sport to fight sexual violence.”

In total, 24 people affected by sexual violence in sport took part in the conference in order to campaign for safe sport in Europe and to actively participate in prevention work. One of the most powerful moments of the conference occurred when each of these individuals stood and explained, in turn, why they wanted to speak out and what it meant for them to do so.

Karen Leach, an ex-national swimmer for Ireland and an ambassador for VOICE said:

“The VOICE project has allowed survivors to have a voice, to be heard, to tell what happened to them as children. It has brought together so many across Europe who have one thing in common, we were all abused as children in our different sports. The VOICE project has spoken, it has told the truth about what has and still is happening to children today.

“The project has saved my life. By listening to me, they heard what I had to say and they never turned their back on me. It has given me a purpose to live. I know what will keep children safe because I know what would have kept me safe. I do not want any other child to end up with a life like mine. I was silenced as a child by abuse, then silenced by deep depression and illness. I have got my voice back.  I didn’t survive all these years of hurt and pain to be ever silenced again. Thanks to the VOICE project I now have the opportunity to turn my life into something worth living for. My voice has been set free.”

Mike has also recently delivered a keynote with Bettina at the National Working Group on Child Sexual Exploitation Annual Enhanced Programme of Learning and Development, where he was presented with a Diamond Award in the Unsung Hero Awards.

The aim of these awards is to recognise and reward individuals or teams who have made significant, ongoing contribution to tackling child sexual exploitation, either through direct interactions with young people, their support of staff within teams or projects or their contributions to an innovative method of working.

Sheila Taylor MBE, Chief Executive of NWG, said:

“Mike has campaigned, illuminated and challenged on behalf of those with experience of abuse in sport which is very important work, but the reason for this award in particular is his support and commitment to those who have experienced such abuse that lend their support to the VOICE project. He is taking their voices seriously, he is making their voices count, and ultimately, he is making their voices heard.”