Brian Jessup hasn’t put on his figure skates in years. They belong to a chapter in his life that he has desperately tried to forget.
“I was robbed of being able to have a normal life and being successful,” he said. “That opportunity was taken away from me.”
Jessup came to figure skating relatively late, at age 10, but picked up the sport easily, and in the 1980s, was one of Ontario’s up-and-coming stars. “I had huge aspirations and goals. I wanted to be the best in the world.”
Things changed when Jessup was just 12 years old, and he said his coach, Kevin Hicks, a former top Canadian skater himself, began to sexually abuse him.
It continued for six years.
“He was in complete control of not only my skating career but my life as well,” said Jessup, now 48. He made Jessup feel “that I would be nothing if he wasn’t part of my life. And he was quick to remind me of that, often.”
A joint investigation by CBC News and Sports has revealed Jessup was one of more than 600 minors in Canada who had been a victim of a sexual offence by a coach, and whose abuser was charged in the last 20 years.
Jessup left skating when he was 19, without telling anybody what had happened. Tormented by his experience, Jessup ended up abusing drugs and alcohol for two decades, until he found the strength to tell his family and, ultimately, the police.
Hicks was arrested in 2012 and later convicted of one count of sexual assault on Jessup and three additional counts of sexual assault on another skater (whose name is protected by a publication ban).
Jessup said back in the 1980s and ’90s, nobody talked openly about sexual abuse, and there were certainly no resources in place in his local club for vulnerable athletes.
More than two decades after Jessup was victimized, local sports clubs and associations across Canada are largely left on their own to develop and implement policies to root out problem coaches and protect athletes.
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For example, figure skating clubs or baseball leagues across the country may have different rules and policies, with little guidance from their national sports bodies.
And that means some young athletes are left in precarious situations.
‘National level has limited oversight’
Sexual abuse in sports has been on the federal government’s radar recently.
A number of high-profile sexual assault complaints involving national team coaches prompted federal sports minister Kirsty Duncan to announce new rules. Beginning in 2020, sport organizations that receive federal funding must have a policy in place to address abuse and provide mandatory training to their members.
They must also report incidents of abuse directly to the minister, and will be required to make an independent third party available to hear athlete-abuse allegations. It’s something athletes from a number of national teams have been pushing for.
These are good ideas that will help athletes competing at a national level, experts say, but they question what they will do for the hundreds of thousands of Canadian athletes who don’t compete in sport at the elite level.
Noni Classen, the director of education at the Winnipeg-based Canadian Centre for Child Protection, has been asked by many clubs and sport organizations to advise on best practices for child safety. She is concerned by the “chaotic” hierarchy in sport, where “no one has authority over anything.”
Classen said national sport organizations (NSOs) may have great policies on paper, but have little way of effectively communicating rules and codes of conduct about the way a coach should interact with a child.
“The national level has limited oversight over the provincial level. So they would have policies in place for the national level, but that doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the provincial level in terms of having authority that they put policies in place. It’s more so recommendations,” Classen explained.
CBC contacted 133 provincial sport organizations (PSOs) — covering eight provinces and 17 different sports — to ask about their policies and procedures around sexual abuse. Of the 61 replies we received, 21 deferred their response to their respective NSO.
Softball Alberta was the only one to say they currently do not take direction from their NSO, Softball Canada.
Many national sports organizations CBC spoke with confirmed that they offer guidance to their PSOs, and that the PSO ultimately governs local clubs and members.
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Gymnastics Canada told CBC it is “working closely with our provincial and territorial partners, however, to align our Safe Sport policies and procedures to ensure consistent enforcement and duty of care across all levels of gymnastics in Canada.”
Canoe Kayak Canada said their policies are currently being reviewed at all levels to articulate who is responsible. But “regardless of the level, CKC will intervene as necessary.”
Experts point out that in many cases, the PSOs operate with limited resources.
For example, Judo Quebec has just six full-time employees. Jean-François Marceau, director of Judo Quebec, told CBC they take the safety of athletes seriously, but their diligence is constrained by a lack of resources.
For one thing, they said they cannot confirm if all local clubs are conducting background checks on potential coaches, or offering them the proper training.
‘You want to see consistency’
Experts say that for the most part, local clubs bear the burden of doing the difficult work of addressing abuse claims and athlete safety.
The Leaside Baseball Association in midtown Toronto runs programs for about 750 children, and like most leagues in Canada, it relies on volunteers from the community.
Jesse Harrison, LBA’s director of coaching and development, said that when he joined the league a few years ago, he was not given any guidance from Baseball Ontario or Baseball Canada on how to implement necessary safety measures.
“It’s scary that these policies and procedures aren’t unified across the province or country, because it’s something that needs to be dealt with,” said Harrison.
“You want to see consistency across the associations, throughout the province. I would like to see if one of our players moves to another city in Ontario, that they are going to get the same education in terms of abuse training.”
Baseball Canada declined to comment to CBC.
It’s scary that these policies and procedures aren’t unified across the province or country, because it’s something that needs to be dealt with.– Jesse Harrison, Leaside Baseball Association director
Jessup said he has managed to reach a good place in his life — he is supported by family and comfortable talking about what happened to him.
But he’s concerned that kids today are no better protected from potential abuse than he was more than two decades ago.
“What tools can we put in place to make a kid feel safe enough to come forward and tell somebody?” Jessup said. “That’s something that we all need to figure out.”