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Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

Church must speak out against child abuse in sport

Jiu-jitsu world champion Meggie Ochoa spars with a young opponent at a gym in Manila. Ochoa teaches self-defense to victims of sexual abuse in a bid to give them tools to recover from trauma and to protect themselves in the future

Jiu-jitsu world champion Meggie Ochoa spars with a young opponent at a gym in Manila. Ochoa teaches self-defense to victims of sexual abuse in a bid to give them tools to recover from trauma and to protect themselves in the future. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 29, 2022 03:24 AM GMT
Like Meggie Ochoa, we all need to be child rights advocates and give support to the cries for help of abused children

Pope Francis is an avid football fan and uses sport to protect children. He follows San Lorenzo football club. He hosted an international interreligious charity football game in Rome in 2014 to support children in need of help and protection. There he met famous players such as Lionel Messi. The late Diego Maradona, also from Argentina, gave Pope Francis a football jersey emblazoned with “Francis.”

Athletes are admired and imitated by millions of fans around the world. They have influence because of their willpower to succeed, to overcome hardship and achieve near-impossible goals. That is the way it is for many great Philippine athletes since almost all of them come from very poor families and have unique sporting ability. However, they have few sponsors to enable them to train and develop their skills to reach their maximum ability.

Pope Francis one said: “Sport is not only a form of entertainment but also — and above all I would say — a tool to communicate values that promote the good that is in humans and help build a more peaceful and fraternal society.”

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The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) needs to take that to heart and support athletes. It is the government body that is supposed to provide state-of-the-art training facilities, opportunities and financing for Filipino athletes to develop their abilities to compete worldwide and bring home the trophies.

However, research by the Institute of Nationalist Studies shows that the PSC is seriously failing Filipino athletes. Despite the problems and lack of funding and support for athletes, many Filipinos have succeeded. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz became the first Filipino ever to win an Olympic gold medal in 2021 in Tokyo.

However, the PSC is in a dark shadow over allegations of corruption. There is no national training center to enable athletes to train and grow. Each has to find their own way to compete in international competitions and rely on their own abilities and the kindness of friends, with little or no encouragement and support from the government. These athletes raise funds themselves, such as Michael Martinez, a highly skilled figure skater and multiple trophy winner. He is hoping to join the Winter Olympics this year and had to set up a GoFundMe page and a G-cash account for donations.

When she went public requesting support, it was deemed criticism of the president and she was viciously vilified online by his supporters

According to a report by the Institute for Nationalist Studies in August 2021, Olympic boxing qualifier Irish Magno was so neglected and underfunded that she could not even send a few thousand pesos to her poor hungry family. The institute reported that Edwin Vilanueva and Adiran Asul, members of the paralympic swimming team, were not given government financial help since 2019 and had to make do with poor living conditions, gritty food and uncomfortable accommodation during their training. No love, care, support or high-powered vitamin or protein diet for them.

Alex Eala, a highly qualified tennis player, denied that the PSC had given her 3 million pesos for training and support. She announced that she never received a single centavo for travel to tournaments. Where did the 3 million pesos go? That indicates why few Filipinos, if any, make it to the top international tennis events. 

Weightlifter Diaz had great difficulty getting funding for her Olympic bid. When she went public requesting support, it was deemed criticism of the president and she was viciously vilified online by his supporters. Her determination and courage kept her going all the way to Tokyo where she triumphed and brought honor to the Philippines, winning gold. Other nations allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to train their athletes. Corruption is the root cause of the problem in Philippine sport. Officials are in government to serve mostly themselves.

The National Bureau of Investigation discovered that a PSC official had stolen 14 million pesos over five years that should have gone to athletes. The amazing thing is that so many Filipino athletes, despite all this skullduggery by government officials, achieve so much by winning trophies and inspiring the youth and nation.

Another great Filipino athlete is Meggie Ochoa, a jiu-jitsu champion. She won a gold medal at the Jiu-Jitsu International Federation World Championships in Sweden in 2021, the first Filipino to do so. She became world champion three times and won a bronze medal at the Asian Games in 2018. Underfunded, she had to raise her own funds to get to tournaments. More than that, she inspired this headline "Jiu-jitsu champ Meggie Ochoa battles Philippines’ sex abuse scourge." She is a committed defender and campaigner for the rights of abused children.

The sexual abuse of athletes is no secret. Children and youth are the most vulnerable of all. In the Philippines, the average athlete in training or on a team is poor, vulnerable and under the ascendancy and control of the coach, manager, trainer or sports doctor. That power of the trainer or coach leaves the door open to sexual abuse. Ochoa sees the extent of child sexual abuse in and outside sports and has become a child rights advocate.

Church leaders must take a stand and speak out against child abuse. It is everywhere. Child abuse is so widespread that UNICEF tagged the Philippines the world epicenter of online child sexual abuse and sexual trade in 2017. It has grown non-stop since.

“It’s an awareness campaign to get people talking about the issue,” said Ochoa, who holds a presentation on the issue after her demonstration bouts.

Abuse victims do not often win when they challenge injustice. Like Meggie Ochoa, we all need to be child rights advocates and give support to the cries for help of abused children

Research shows that the coach or trainer is the main sexual abuser of minors in sports. In swimming, it is mostly girl victims and in tennis it is mostly boy victims, researchers found. Peer group pressure also leads to the sexual abuse of minors. The older athletes have a powerful influence on juniors and can groom and bring them into a dependent relationship where the abuse occurs.

Sports doctors also have influence and can abuse young athletes to get sexual gratification. Larry Nassar, a former US gymnastics doctor, is the most notorious and when many sexually abused gymnasts made complaints to the US Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, both created by Congress to protect athletes, it was revealed both failed to do their jobs.

They also reported the crimes to the FBI but the agency failed to investigate Nassar. He continued to abuse athletes for two more years. In the US, one in 12 young athletes is sexually abused. It is likely to be similar or even worse in the Philippines and other countries.

Clerics have been convicted of the sexual abuse of children. Eradicating such crimes is the top priority of Pope Francis, who has done much to stand in solidarity with victims and challenges bishops to do more to eradicate clerical sex abuse of children.

The institutional cover-up of child abuse in sports, society and the Church are crimes of abuse themselves. The victims are ignored, silenced, harassed and see no justice. The authorities will protect the institution, the “favored son” and high officials and ignore the victims. The BBC revealed that the UN has a huge problem of sexual abuse and harassment. Complaints and whistleblowers have been fired. Many of the abusers have immunity from prosecution as UN diplomats. Most institutions instill fear and issue threats to prevent victims from reporting abuse and when they do, the apathy and indifference among officials allows it to continue. 

Life for a child or youth in sports is not a fair game. Abuse victims do not often win when they challenge injustice. Like Meggie Ochoa, we all need to be child rights advocates and give support to the cries for help of abused children.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia