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Somersaulting and landing in the same or a different place?

Last week it was turn of gymnastics to find itself in the glare of the safeguarding spotlight. The Whyte review, commissioned by the sport’s governing body, published grisly details of ‘desperately hungry gymnasts’, ‘overstretched’ young bodies and their being strapped to bars as punishments by coaches. The review estimated that between 2008 and 2020, 3,500 complaints were made to British Gymnastics. Yet it took a whistle-blower and investigative journalism to uncover what had been going on, making the sport really take notice, with some commentators now beginning to question whether the 16 medals won at the 2012 Olympics were worth it, given the human cost.

This column has periodically shared published details of major inquiries into abusive behaviour in sports organisations, as well as churches. Another recent inquiry has been into accounts of racism at Yorkshire Cricket Club. What seems to characterise most of these developments is the initial bravery of one or two people coming forward to tell their story publicly, followed up by detailed and painstaking independent investigation to amass a wealth of information that the relevant authorities can no longer ignore. It’s then that a more formal review is commissioned, perhaps followed by an apology and an action plan that promises to do better.

So the questions remain; why does it take journalists and others to uncover what has been going wrong in organisations? Why can’t the organisation itself see for itself what is happening on its own watch? The answers are not likely to be straightforward with reputational protection, concern about a draining away of public and financial support, minimisation of what’s been observed and bureaucratic inertia all having a part to play.

All organisations, the Church included, would do well to continue to take a hard look at themselves when a single report of a safeguarding concern is made. The personal, emotional cost to the individual victim who comes forward will have been immense, but the organisation itself stands to lose public trust, credibility and its reputation if later it’s exposed for not having responded promptly and appropriately, especially if the single instance then became a regular stream. Failure to do so could also hit it where it really hurts – in its bank account.

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