There were more than 160 cases of sports coaches engaging in sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old in their care since 2016, a BBC investigation has found – prompting campaigners to say the law must be changed “urgently”.
Victims, MPs and the NSPCC have renewed calls for a legal “loophole” to be closed to ban anyone holding a position of responsibility over a child from having a sexual relationship with them.
It is illegal for certain professions, including teachers and doctors, to engage in sexual activity with children, even if they are over the age of consent.
However, the Sexual Offences Act does not extend to sports coaches.
The Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review of the legislation, and says it will outline its plans “in due course”, but Sarah Champion MP said the figures obtained by the BBC were “irrefutable” evidence that the law needs to be changed “immediately”.
A Freedom of Information request by BBC Sport asked all councils in England and Wales for complaints made to them about cases involving sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old by a person potentially in a position of trust.
The complaints are referred to the local authorities because they do not constitute a potential crime under the Sexual Offences Act.
In the last four years 164 cases involved sports coaches or adults working in sport, out of a total of 1,481 cases recorded.
Ms Champion, MP for Rotherham, told BBC Sport: “There is a gaping legal loophole that perpetrators of child abuse are walking straight into.
“I’ve been raising this with government for six years now and my frustration is that we keep on having reviews.
“In the intervening years while the government hasn’t acted and has just had consultation after consultation, more children have had their lives wrecked.”
She said the BBC’s figures for the number of cases “makes it irrefutable to the government that they have to act on this”, but warned the numbers are the “tip of the iceberg”.
“The vast, vast majority of these cases will never be reported,” she said.
“And part of the reason for that is these sports coaches are grooming these children into believing they are in a legitimate relationship. It’s not. It’s an abuse of their power position.
“It will take sometimes decades for the young people to realise exactly what was going on and speak out about it. So 160 people that we know about will be a tiny minority of the actual people that are abusing their position.”
Although abuse of positions of trust by sports coaches is not a criminal offence, unless they work in an educational setting such as schools, some councils referred the cases onto the police for consideration of further action.
It is also possible the relevant sports governing bodies and other safeguarding authorities were alerted to these cases, and may have followed their own disciplinary proceedings.
A government spokesperson said: “Abuse of power is abhorrent and these crimes rightly carry tough sentences. We have reviewed the law in this area and will set out our plans in due course.”
This area of the law has been the subject of scrutiny for several years.
In 2017, in the wake of the football child sex abuse scandal, then Sports Minister Tracey Crouch announced that a change to the law had been agreed by the Ministry of Justice and Home Office.
However, it has been subject to a lengthy judicial review, and the Sexual Offences Act remains unchanged.