Sexual abuse in youth club sports takes center stage in Illinois state Senate task force

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Victims of sexual assault in youth sports shared their stories Tuesday with Illinois state senators and raised concerns about oversight and an unwillingness to address the issue.

Tuesday’s hearing comes after a former USA Gymnastics doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abusing athletes for more than two decades in a scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. It also comes after the eruption of sexual harassment allegations out of Hollywood, in the halls of Congress and in statehouses across the country that crystalized the #MeToo movement. Illinois lawmakers had set out to see how they could address the issue. Separate task forces in both the House and Senate have been hearing testimony from the public and private sectors.

The Senate’s Sexual Discrimination and Harassment Awareness Prevention Task Force heard Tuesday about the prevalence in sexual assault cases in youth club sports, or sporting organizations that are separate from a school.

Julie Romias said she was raped by her volleyball coach beginning when she was 17.

“When a child is sexually abused, some of us drink alcohol or do drugs to mask the pain and the shame,” Romias said. “Some of us become promiscuous or choose an abuser to marry because we feel we are not worthy.”

Sarah Powers-Barnhard said she was also sexually assaulted by her club sports volleyball coach when she was 16.

Powers-Barnhard said she has friends, both male and female, who were abused in taekwondo, swimming and skating club sports. While the sports may be different, Powers-Barnhard said the organization’s the sports were governed by were similar.

“Mine was USA Volleyball,” Powers-Barnhard said. “It might be USA Taekwondo, [Amateur Athletic Union]. Some have had lawsuits that have been dismissed because they’re insulated with their ability to govern themselves.”

Kay Rogness, who helped form the club where Powers-Barnhard was abused, said she was oblivious to the abuse, but when she found out and tried to report it to the sport’s governing body, she said it seemed reluctant to do anything.

Rogness said such institutions need more oversight to ensure coaches with troubling records don’t get shifted around from one organization to another. She also said more needs to be done to inform coaches, players and parents about how to report sexual assault.

Both Romias and Powers-Barnhard said they themselves and others they know remained silent for years because of threats from their abusers. Some continue to maintain that silence.

Attorney Jay Edelson suggested several fixes Illinois lawmakers can offer to provide more support to victims.

One suggestion to curb bullying by the alleged abuser if they file a defamation case: “The statute of limitations (on sexual assault) should be deemed waived so that the victims can bring counter suits and prove the underlying allegations of the abuse.”

Edelson said too often, alleged abusers try to silence their victims with defamation lawsuits that can be expensive and intimidating.

Other suggestions Edelson offered included strengthening perjury penalties, reporting requirements and making it easier to report and establish potential damages.

Senators also heard about the importance of reviewing the abuse and harassment that those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community may experience and various proposals to reduce the backlog of harassment cases at the Illinois Department of Human Rights which hears such cases.

Senators are expected to compare notes with their House counterparts later this week before putting forth legislation to address harassment, discrimination and assault in the public and private sectors.


This story was originally published on the Illinois News Network.

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