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Athlete tells parliamentary committee Gymnastics Canada's handling of abuse broke him

Rosannagh Maclennan, of Canada, performs in the women's trampoline gymnastics final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, on July 30, 2021. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Rosannagh Maclennan, of Canada, performs in the women's trampoline gymnastics final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, on July 30, 2021. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP)

A gymnast says he was abused in his sport and then broken by a Canadian system that failed to address that abuse.

Ryan Sheehan spoke Monday in Ottawa to a parliamentary committee on safe sport.

The 29-year-old from Edmonton joined several athletes who have testified in front of both the Heritage and Status of Women committees in recent months about abuse in Canadian sport.

"There were many nights where I felt broken beyond repair. I was not broken by sport. I was abused in sport and broken by the system," Sheehan told the Heritage committee.

Sheehan has competed twice at the world trampoline championship.

He and Kim Shore, who has appeared before the Status of Women committee and was also present Monday, are co-founders of Gymnasts For Change Canada

Sheehan said a national team therapist groped him when he was a teenager.

"He put his hand up my gym suit and underwear and groped my genitals twice," Sheehan said.

When he told a coach and a complaint was lodged in 2019, Sheehan says Gymnastics Canada told him the matter was no longer under its jurisdiction because the therapist was no longer an employee.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport ordered GymCan to do an investigation.

Sheehan learned four other individuals had come forward about their experiences with the therapist.

"This man was never sanctioned by GymCan," Sheehan said.

After recounting his abuse and his despondence over Gymnastics Canada's handing of it in a social media post in 2021, Sheehan said a conversation with the organization's welfare officer Gretchen Kerr left him feeling suicidal.

"She claimed I had never filed a formal complaint so I had no reason to be upset, and if I was careful about what I posted there would be an outcome that both she and I would be happy with," Sheehan said.

"The organization that my family and I entrusted with my physical and mental well-being for two decades, could not even do the bare minimum to investigate my case unless forced and then attempted to silence me."

Kerr, a University of Toronto professor specializing in maltreatment in sport, appeared at a Heritage committee hearing last week.

Sheehan criticized Kerr's position that Canada doesn't need a judicial or national inquiry into abuse in sport.

"Now with an opportunity to support a national inquiry, Gretchen Kerr opposes -- a researcher who doesn't want anyone else to look more closely at corruption in sport," Sheehan said.

Kerr didn't immediately respond to an email Monday requesting comment, but she told MPs last week a judicial inquiry would eat up precious time to make sport safer.

"We'll lose time and money and we'll lose progress," Kerr stated. "We have all the information we need to move forward."

Shore vehemently disagreed Monday.

"Resistance to a national inquiry needs to be deeply scrutinized," Shore told assembled MPs.

"Willful blindness, imbalance of power and undeclared conflict of interests need to be uncovered and resolved. Adults need to stop choosing to protect their legacy over protecting children."

Others questioned Monday by MPs included Paralympic basketball player and AthletesCAN board member Bo Hedges and Western University assistant professor MacIntosh Ross, who represented Scholars Against Abuse in Canadian Sport.

"We cannot move forward with preventing future maltreatment unless all stakeholders in the sports system are educated on what it actually means and the duties that are required for everyone to prevent these forms of behaviour," Hedges said.

Athletes, coaches, high-performance directors, technical and medical support staff, chief executive officers and board members all need to be better informed and trained in safe sport, he said.

"We cannot solely rely on it being accomplished through e-learnings and resources people can quickly check off their list by clicking a button," he explained.

"Compliance needs to be guaranteed in all these initiatives moving forward with checks to insure NSOs are accountable. We cannot rely on the honour system any more within sport to ensure of all these actions are taken by all involved."

The over 100 members of Scholars Against Abuse in Canadian Sport want a national inquiry, said Ross, who issued a plea to Prime Minister Trudeau for it.

"Sport administrators are not equipped to foster the kind of meaningful sustainable change that this system needs," Ross said. "The current abuse crisis and Canadian sport can't be solved by existing mechanisms. It's a human rights issue within sport.

"Both I and the Prime Minister are boxers. I hope that Mr. Trudeau would be in the corner of the Canadian people. Throw in the towel on this sport system and save it from itself. It's not an act of surrender. It's not an act of judgment against those involved. It's an act of love, love for athletes, coaches and officials who need you more now than ever. Throw in the towel."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023 Top Stories

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