Investigation finds hundreds of French coaches sexually abused minors

An investigation by France’s sports ministry has revealed over 400 of the country’s sports coaches, teachers, and other guardians are suspected of sexual violence and harassment to minors under 15 years old.

Already over 100 people have been discharged or suspended from athletic positions because of the probe and 60 people now face criminal charges, according to the ministry.

96 percent of the suspects are male and 83 percent of the purported targets of the assaults are female. 63 percent of the alleged victims are 15 years old or younger. 

The wheels of the investigation were set in motion in February 2020 after Sarah Abitbol, a champion French ice skater, claimed she was raped by her coach, Gilles Beyer, in the 1990s when she was still underage. Beyer was arrested for sexual assault after the accusations by the skating star.

In her book, Such a Long Silence, Abitbol made her claims that she was raped by Beyer between 1990 and 1992. “He started to do horrible things leading to sexual abuse,” the athlete said to L’Obs magazine. “It was the first time a man touched me.”

According to BBC News, Beyer answered the accusations by saying he had an “intimate” and “inappropriate” relationship with her before issuing an apology.

The skating champion did not accept Beyer’s apology and said that she was looking for accountability for “all those who covered up [the crimes] both in the club and the federation.”

In Early January, Agence-France Presse reported that the Paris public prosecutor’s office brought Beyer up on charges of “sexual assault by a person in authority and sexual harassment by a person in authority.”

In the wake of the controversy, in February 2020 Didier Gailhaguet, France’s long-time head of the ice federation, announced he was stepping down with dignity and no resentment at the “injustice” of being squeezed out of his job by the sports minister.

Gailhaguet was not personally accused of any direct wrongdoing to the athletes. All of the alleged abuse occured from the end of the 1970s to the 1990s. 

Making a statement after a session of the French Ice Sports Federation (FFSG) council in Paris, Gailhaguet, 66, said: “I have taken the wise decision to resign from my post… I have taken this decision with composure, with dignity, but without any bitterness before this injustice.”

Abitbol sharing her story became “a historic moment for French sport,” the ministry stated.

On Friday during a government meeting, Abitbol saluted other victims for giving their testimony and added she was still “healing” from her past exploitation.

One of the first French female athletes to go public regarding their abuse in 1991 was tennis champion Isabelle Demongeot, who also addressed the meeting about how hard it was to come forward. 

The former professional hammer thrower Catherine Moyon de Baecque also spoke out saying she was raped by her coach.  

France isn’t the only nation with issues in sports regarding misconduct by authority figures. 

Former US national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in 2017 and 2018 after being brought up on charges of sexual assault, along with the possession of child pornography. He was said to have used his position treating athletes as a ruse for abusing over 265 identified women, some of them former US Olympians.

Abitbol, along with her skating partner Stéphane Bernadis, had become ten time French national champions, as well as winning seven European medals. The two skaters became the first French team to win a world medal in almost 70 years at the 2000 World Championships.

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