A leading researcher on child abuse in sport from Edge Hill University is helping to shape child protection policies in Europe to safeguard young people.

Dr Mike Hartill, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Sport is one of 10 specialist advisors chosen to develop measures to ensure that sports organisations across Europe play a pivotal role in preventing abuse in sport.

“My aim of my research is to raise awareness of abuse and encourage sport organisations to recognise that there is a problem and that they have a responsibility to make sport safer for children,” he said.

“Only recently has it been recognised that abuse is a problem for organised sport, with a high profile case in swimming in the mid-1990s proving the catalyst for government action to address the issue. Yet, very little research has been conducted into this problem and so far studies have mostly focused on females victims.

“It is now recognised that this is also a significant problem for boys. The voices of males who have experienced sexual abuse have rarely been heard. This is something I have tried to address through my research and I’ve recently conducted research interviews with male victims of abuse in sport.”

In his research, he argues that the power relation between coach and child is a contributing factor to the silence that frequently surrounds the abuse of children.

“It correlates very closely to the Jimmy Saville case hitting the headlines at the moment. He was a celebrity with a great deal of power and influence who raised huge amounts of money for good causes. There are many similarities with charismatic coaches who have abused in sport.  Coaches are like gods to children who want to succeed in sport and young athletes feel as though they hold the keys to their success. They also have many credentials that set them apart as experts. When I’ve spoken to victims they have told me they are made to feel like they have to go along with the sexual activity in order succeed in their sport and often feel as though it is their fault – so keep silent about it.”

Dr Harthill has been invited to speak at conferences across Europe to raise awareness of the issues in light of his expertise and pioneering research around sexual abuse of boys in sport.

“The picture across Europe is very worrying,” explained Dr Hartill. “For example, in Spain where I was recently asked to speak, sport organisations have no responsibility for protecting children from abuse. The problem of childhood sexual abuse has been described as ‘an epidemic’ in the UK, yet it seems that our child protection systems and processes within sport are much more advanced than many European countries. Although we have a long way to go in the UK, it seems that Europe can learn a lot from what we have set up here already.”

He will next speak at the Safer, Better, Stronger. Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sports conference, which will take place in Berlin on 20th and 21st November. Aimed at key European policy makers, he will highlight Edge Hill’s ten-year collaboration with the British Rugby League, during which time he has been involved in evaluating and advising on the implementation of their child protection.

With his colleague Dr Melanie Lang, Dr Hartill will also be editing a Routledge book titled Safeguarding, child protection and abuse in sport: International perspectives in Research, Policy and Practice, due for publication in early 2014.