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'I do not want any other child, any other young person or athlete to go through what I went through'

Psychotherapist Karen Leach shares her lived experience and explains why more must be done to prevent children being harmed.

Karen Leach.
Karen Leach.

KAREN LEACH IS one of the leading voices in international work against sexual abuse and harassment in sport across the world. Safe Sports Advocate; VOICE Ambassador (Voices for Truth and Dignity Combatting Sexual Violence in European Sport through the Voices of Those affected), Sport England Advisory Panel, Pool of European Experts on Sexual Violence in Sport, Associate Consultant to Safe Sport International, Safeguarding Children in Sport Strategic Group Northern Ireland, Psychotherapist.

As a child, Karen was recognised as a talented swimmer with strong aspirations and a realistic chance of representing Ireland at the Olympic Games. Between the ages of 10 and 17, Karen spent endless hours in the swimming pool. During this time, Karen was routinely abused by her coach.

Since the publication of her lived experience in the book ‘Deep Deception, Ireland’s Swimming Scandals,’ Karen has been speaking out across the world and advocating on behalf of children, young people, adults at risk, athletes at all levels.

She is working to create a greater level of awareness to encourage safer spaces for everyone at risk in sport, working regularly with international organisations in advisory roles, public speaking capacities, facilitating various group work, and moderating at different events.

Karen is a psychotherapist. Through this avenue, she has been able to help and support others, including those who have suffered abuse. Many athletes across the world have contacted Karen to share their experiences in sport. From this and Karen’s own experience, she now finds herself speaking out and standing up for how people with lived experience, who have become safe sport advocates, are being treated in the world of sport.

At the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, Karen spoke at the first-ever Olympism in Action forum, while she also assisted the International Olympic Committee in educating athletes and entourage members about this important topic. Below, she shares her lived experience.

***

My parents couldn’t swim. They’re from the west of Ireland and they would go to the beaches, and their friends would be getting into the water or going into swimming pools, and they couldn’t. They didn’t want that for their children.

I live in Kildare and back then, there weren’t many swimming pools around. Mam and dad had to drive us to Dublin to the Navan Road, Aura De Paul swimming pool, where my three brothers and I started learning how to swim. I absolutely loved it, took to it like a duck to water and progressed very quickly.

I wanted to represent Ireland at the Olympics. So even though I was still in the early stages of learning how to swim, my ambition was clear. 

At the local community games, this man was sitting on the bank with a stopwatch around his neck. Next thing, everybody was speaking about him, the Irish Olympic coach from King’s Hospital swimming club in Palmerstown.

I swam very well, I won my races. I don’t exactly remember the conversation, but I remember his presence. I can still see him now. And I’m sure I spoke about my dream because that’s all I was speaking about as a little girl.

So next thing, I have the Irish Olympic swimming coach contacting my parents. He was explaining that I would go to the Olympics, how I’d get there, how I had great potential, how he was the best coach in Ireland. He knew everything, what I needed to do each year, what percentage I needed to take off. He kept persisting with that and eventually, he became my swimming coach.

I remember the very first time I walked in that door, I can see myself walking past his office door into the changing rooms.

From that moment on, my whole life became swimming. Nothing else mattered. I remember going to school and I used to have big goggle marks under my eyes. I used to stink from the chlorine. They’d smell me coming. 

And this dream is real because he’s talking about it. I’m not just imagining it. My very happy childhood ended the day I joined his swimming club.

And he kept saying he was ‘the best in Ireland,’ even though we also had George Gibney saying he was ‘the best in Ireland’. But as far as Derry O’Rourke was concerned, he was the best.

When I look back now, with everything I know as a woman, it was just horrible. And I would hate for any child to be living through that.

***

When did the abuse begin? Straight away, because he started pulling me in, grooming me. And he had started by grooming my parents before he even got to me.

People think abuse is just sexual abuse, it’s not. The abuse started when he tried to recruit me to his club. I believe he always had every intention of doing what he did. He didn’t just decide when I got there. And there was always something happening, whether it be sexual, mental or emotional. Building you up, pulling you back down again, not talking to you — the silence was worse than anything. 

I had to be on high alert as a little girl. A switch went off for me and it was survival. And I didn’t know that that was what was happening to me. But I kept wanting to go — in those early years, I loved swimming. I dreamed of swimming for Ireland at the Olympics, and he said he would make my dream come true. 

Emotional and physical abuse can be as damaging as sexual abuse. Some people feel: ‘Well, for me, it wasn’t that bad, he didn’t do that to me, therefore I haven’t got a right to ask for help.’ But it’s anything, it doesn’t matter. If somebody is hurting you, shouting at you, pushing you too far, blocking, stopping, hitting or touching your body, abusing people online. If somebody is emotionally sucking the life out of you, and I’m using the word ‘blackmail,’ because that’s what they do, they dangle the carrot in front of you, of your dreams, your passion and your sport.

If you’re uncomfortable, and something is not right for you, please ask for help. Do not compare anything that’s happened to you to someone else, or what anyone else says. It’s about the individual. If it’s hurting you, you need help. It’s a really important point. And especially in Ireland, the culture and attitudes around abuse are really bad. No one wants to talk about this and it is a big problem. 

national-aquatic-centre-1032003 File pic. Source: INPHO

***

I was living in London. I got a phone call to say that Derry O’Rourke had been arrested.

I put the phone down and at that moment, my whole insides somersaulted. It was like a volcano. The whole thing was now bubbling. I had put a tight lid on everything that happened to me. 

All of a sudden, those seals on the bin were wobbling and they were starting to come off — this is what was happening in my body.

I then started really running away from myself. Alcohol became my only friend because it was the only friend I had that would numb the pain. But what comes with alcohol then is more problems.

I came home from London, and the court case took place. And for all these years later, I carried all of this. My mind was gone, my behaviour was gone, my family suffered greatly because they didn’t know what was wrong with me.

My mam asked me once: ‘Did he do anything to you?’ She used to go to mass in Leixlip. She had great faith, and Derry O’Rourke was in the front row with his wife every morning, and this was all in the newspapers. My mam could see him. I got drunk and said something one night — I got up the next morning and she asked me. I shut down. I wasn’t saying anything and I went back to London. 

I suppose, if you say something, people think: ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ It’s not. If anything, it gets worse.

When I ended up in St John of God’s psychiatric hospital, I begged my mam and dad not to tell anybody that I was in there. I begged my mam and dad not to tell anybody that I was one of the girls that Derry O’Rourke abused. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was full of shame, and I lived with that for years. I thought everything was my fault.

I always thought for years and only up until recently, it was my fault that my mam died. If I hadn’t told her, she wouldn’t have been hurt. It’s why you don’t tell.

I eventually told my mam, but I went to the guards on my own. No one came with me. I told nobody I was going there. It was only afterwards I said to mam I’d been to the guards and asked: ‘Can you tell dad?’ Because I couldn’t tell my dad.

So for years, everything was ‘my fault’. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital with nothing. So I always thought: ‘I shouldn’t have said anything.’ 

My mam said to me one Thursday that she loved me. All she ever wanted for me was to be happy and that she was sorry she didn’t look after me as a little girl. This was one of the last conversations I had with my mam.

My man’s body was taken out of the canal the following Monday. My beautiful mam was gone, my beautiful mam was dead. 

I now know, as a mother, if something happened to my child what it would feel like. 

My dad used to say: ‘Karen, I took you there and mam is dead.’ My dad died a very broken man, with a broken heart over all of this too.

***

How do you get better? It never goes away. But I suppose I found a place where I can live as peacefully as possible.

Sometimes I still have bad days, but I’ve learned through everything I’ve done — techniques and ways to manage and mind myself. 

It’s important to remember I am not just about the abuse that happened to me, but I live with it to this day.

It took me to St John of God’s, where I literally had to be put into this ward, a secure unit, the doors were locked, everything was taken off me, even the belt of my dressing gown. I had a picture of my mam, they took the glass from it, they just left me with the picture.

I was just lying in there. It was after I had a massive overdose. I would be constantly back in the hospital because I kept trying to take my own life. I was put in there to keep me alive. 

They moved me to the next level, but the doors weren’t locked, I could walk around, go to the toilet and this young doctor said to me: ‘Karen, you’re going to have to talk, you’re going to have to speak again.’

I remember just staring at her. I was just curled up on a bed. I had stopped talking, my voice was gone, and I didn’t want to live, because I couldn’t cope with the pain and what was going on inside me and the memories and hurt. I spent 10 years in psychiatric care and almost two years as an in-patient there. 

So I know what depression is. I’ve lived with anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, and bulimia. But I constantly work on myself, so that I’m in a good place and I can support others in those areas of mental health, especially now with what’s happening.

And recently, I hit the wall. You can’t get out, you can’t meet people, you can’t connect, you can’t see others and do the simple things in life. Now, I want to talk, I want to meet friends. I’m going to work very hard on my mental, emotional and physical health.

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***

It’s so important to reach out. No one told me I could ask for help. No one told me what was happening was wrong. I didn’t understand, I didn’t know.

Years later, everything changed, and I am so grateful to two men in particular — Colm O’Gorman and Andrew Madden. They were both abused by priests when they were children.

I was in St John of God’s psychiatric hospital, very sick. They spoke on ‘The Late Late Show’. I remember listening and looking at them, and I was in shock. I got myself into such a state that I thought: ‘Everybody else in this room now knows why I’m in this hospital.’ 

I kept thinking: ‘They’re saying this happened to them, how are they able to do that?’ But it frightened me when I heard them that night. I thought: ‘Now everyone knows, that’s why I’m in here.’

I woke up the next morning and I kept thinking about them. I thought: ‘Oh my God, there must be a way to get better.’ I’ve got to find that way. I can’t keep living like this, or else I’m going to die. I will kill myself. I couldn’t. That’s why there were numerous suicide attempts because I couldn’t live with this pain anymore.

The hope is now that I can help someone else the way they helped me. But also, by continually speaking, talking, raising awareness and reminding people about what happened, I’ll bring some level of awareness and understanding of the reality and abuse in Ireland, and I will keep chipping away at that wall, breaking the silence. 

For me, it started 40 years ago and finished at 17, and these young people I work with are telling me the same thing. They’re sharing the same concerns that no one is listening, no one is helping, and no one supports them. If they speak out, they’re being punished with silence. They’ve gone through the same hell that I’ve experienced.

People tell me everything has changed. It’s not changed. What’s missing is the voice of the athlete, the voice of the child. I’ve contacted people and said: ‘Look, abuse is still happening. Please, can you raise awareness?’ And I’m baffled at the responses, that people think such things are okay, but it’s not gone away. 

***

I’m delighted that the Second Captains George Gibney podcast was broadcast and that over two million people listened to it. I’m delighted for the swimmers first of all. They’ve had a chance to have their voices heard. And as far as I’m concerned, he got away with it.

Remember, five coaches in Ireland — Ger Doyle, George Gibney, Frank McCann, Fr Ronald Bennett and Derry O’Rourke — destroyed hundreds of children’s lives. 

I made enquiries as to why no one, as far as I could see, in Irish sport was talking, or making any statement, publicly supporting the swimmers and then, I saw on the Swim Ireland website: ‘We’re here to listen.’ They don’t mention George Gibney by name. Has anyone said ‘sorry’ or publicly apologised to the swimmers in Ireland who have been abused, lives destroyed by all these coaches?

I hope the George Gibney podcast has helped all those swimmers. I listened to it, and I shouldn’t have, because it’s so close to home. It was very upsetting — I know some of those swimmers. 

A lot of people have been following George Gibney for years, like Bart Nolan Sr. He passed away two years ago at the age of 88. He fought every step of the way for every swimmer in Ireland and he was never recognised for what he did. 

A couple of years ago, I was asked, if needed, would I travel to Florida with a swimmer who could be making a statement to police and pressing charges there. I was quite prepared to do it at the time, but it didn’t happen. I was asked through Bart and Maureen O Sullivan TD, who has been following George Gibney for years.

They needed a voice, so I’m glad now that they have their voice.

When I speak up now, I can’t change what’s happened to me. But why I stand up and speak is that I do not want any other child, any young person or athlete to go through what I went through.

In my experience, people often say: ‘It’s uncomfortable to talk about.’ And I always say: ‘If you’re uncomfortable as an adult talking about it, imagine what it is like for anyone who has been abused and is trying to ask for help.’ So we have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

By speaking about it and breaking the silence, we remove the shame, guilt and embarrassment — all these things that I’ve lived with all my life and sometimes still come to me. 

What happens on the ground is the big thing. We have to embed a culture of safety. From top to bottom, we have to communicate that.

Unless abuse comes to your door, you will never know the true deep pain it causes. 

Karen Leach was in conversation with Paul Fennessy

Need help? Support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie

  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)

  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s) 

About the author:

Karen Leach

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