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BRyder's picture
The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

For over a year now the blogs, forum and chat rooms have periodically been alive with the discussion of a topic in martial arts, and society in general which fills us with anger and fear: sexual abuse.

The most notable case has today (at the time of writing) come to a close, with the widely respected researcher, author and karate instructor Harry Cook being sentenced to a decade in jail for the abuse of people who placed their trust in him, stealing their innocence forever. Admitting forty-nine charges that included sexual assaults and possession of thousands of indecent images and videos, ‘Cook’ as he will no doubt now be known will most probably become the infamous name of British karate, perhaps martial arts in general.

Resulting from the news of the jail term was a tirade of comments exasperated by the length of the sentence, wishes of brutal capital punishment, and some quite unusual comments too. The backlash of anger directed at Cook is understandable but this energy would be much better being channelled in to working on how to prevent this happening again.

People are venting their anger having never met the victims of these crimes, because they too are tertiary victims of these offences. We all hold our instructors up on a pedestal, perhaps sometimes a little too high, with our senior instructors venerated, being incapable of personal or professional fault, as our admiration for their ability, knowledge and understanding obscures our rational thought and the reality that they are just as flawed as we see ourselves.

We are victims too because we all empathise with the people who called Cook their instructor.

These people, who supported him in the face of professional criticism or martial arts politics, will be feeling betrayed, ashamed, angry and concerned, perhaps guilty for not spotting something or for even for not acting on something they presumed to be innocent but now see from a different perspective. We are angry because we have all held someone with such high esteem, and instead of opening ourselves up to this vulnerability we apportion blame and display anger so we don’t have to face the truth that this will happen again, and that we all have a responsibility to try to prevent it happening soon.

We should respect the anonymity and privacy of the real victims of these crimes, but we must also use their demonstration of incredible strength to tell someone, and of the confidence and determination of that person to act on the initial disclosure, to show our students and customers that we can and we will deal with any breaches of trust in our organisations.

Open discussion of sexual abuse is not an easy task. There is an initial hesitance to do so simply because of the emotional response a case like this will stimulate, and we want to tell people that “it’s safe here” and “it will never happen” in fear that we won’t be trusted without such a bold and confident declaration, and because we don’t want parents of young learners to keep their children away from our schools.

We work (or play) in the area of self-protection, which we know is about managing personal risk and then having management strategies when our risk assessment fails, yet in terms of child protection we ignore a similar path, and instead respond irrationally like a person refusing to leave the house out of fear of the violence that is out there.

The irrational feelings we initially get can be rationalised to knowledge, and if we do this, acknowledge that there is a risk and put in place simple yet effective measures to minimise the risk, then we will know that we will be better protected and then we can start feeling better protected. Behind the scenes the national governing bodies have been devising complex child protection strategies, requiring criminal records checks and getting people to sign forms left right and centre so that we can feel a bit better prepared and protected, but also to minimise their vicarious liability.

Child protection and vulnerable adult policies are a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but what good are they if they are sat gathering dust at the back of a filing cabinet? Is this not like the guy who’s approach to home security is just hiding a baseball bat in the wardrobe just in case someone were to break in? These policies need to be living documents to which ‘lessons learned’ from within our organisations can be used to continually improve our defences.

The adults we teach need to know about it, read it, ask questions about it and be able to make suggestions, and the parents of the kids we teach need to get treated exactly the same. Whilst it is up to the parents to decide if and how they approach this with their child, it is important that we highlight to everyone who enters the school which people are entrusted with our safety, and what qualifies this trust we place in them.

The key is not to ignore the elephant in the room, but to use this as an opportunity to talk about it and turn the irrational fear based responses into rational knowledge based perceptions which will provide the feelings of safety and security that we want our customers to have, and will allow our industry to continue to thrive.

harlan's picture

Good advice for after the fact...but what about before?

I was in the situation where I visited a dojo, and really felt my radar blasting away. Quietly checked on the rep of the individual and dojo with others in that style. The info came back that other teachers had heard of him, never trained with him, but he had a good reputation.

What next...when it;s the radar going and no facts to back it up?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Like many here I had met Harry a number of times over the years and I was shocked when I first heard the news. Harry is also not the only high profile martial arts instructors to be jailed for child sex offenses recently as former world champion Tim Stephens was also recently jailed: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-17898712 There have obviously also been other karate instructors who have been jailed for such offences. In all cases people have been horrified to find that someone they knew and thought respectable could be capable of such deplorable behaviour.

It’s not just within the martial arts of course. I’ve known people outside the martial arts (including one priest) who also showed no outward sign that they could be involved with something so sickening. This raises the question of what else could be done if there are no obvious signs and no previous convictions?

The law in the UK requires those working with children to have undergone Criminal Records Bureau checks; which I’m sure those involved in the above cases will have successfully passed. And as important as such checks are, the fact is it will only flag up people with previous convictions. Those who are “under the radar” will not get flagged up by this system.

This also underlines Ben’s point about how the bravery of the victims and their families should be applauded. If it were not for them coming forward there would not have been the evidence which was used to secure a conviction and a lifelong addition to the sex offenders’ resistor.

It’s also a very valid point about the sense of betrayal that the other students must feel. I also feel sorry for the family of Harry Cook as they too are innocent victims and they must also be subject to a massive sense of betrayal and confusion.

Beck to what can be done with regards to prevention, I think that CRB checks are vital as they protect from the “known”. There is the need for a children protection policy of course as a good policy combined with vigilance can be helpful. This is not just from the perspective of protecting children from rogue instructors, but also in helping good instructors spot signs of abuse and to protect children from other club members (i.e. bullying from other children etc).

However, it’s far more difficult to know what can be done about unknown threats. Is there anything in recent cases (not just within the martial arts) that would suggest any tightening or revision of existing laws and good coaching practise could prevent such things in the future? This is an international forum so it may be interesting to see how this issue is approached in other parts of the world to see if we can learn anything from one another? What about those involved in other teaching roles (school teachers, other sports, scouts, young person’s organisations, etc)? Are other fields doing things that we all should be doing?

All the best,


Tau's picture

Off to work in a few minutes so quick reply.

First Iain's point about the family of the jailed men is valid. Not to undermine the victims or their families but there are less obvious victims here too. Also potentially the Martial Arts world could become victims. We know how Britain is prone to knee-jerk overreactions.

CRBs. Flawed system. In the case of Harry Cook he probably had a clean CRB. I recently changed job and had my first CRB done for seven years. In those seven years I could have been in and out of prison (taking aside that I'd worked full time for those seven years (including with children) so everyone knows I hadn't and furthermore should I comit any serious crime, including drink-driving, then the police are obligated to inform my professional body). The point is that CRBs are only good on the day they're printed. I believe a new system is on the way, as started in Scotland. Would or could anyone expand on that?

Finally, in terms of what we do. And I'm specifically talking about us here on this forum. It's about how we teach and to whom. Yes, paranoia is a factor. I won't tie a child's belt as my hand come too close to their groin. Instead I have another older student do it. Some of our escapes in the junior syllabus involve bringing the hand up the centre of the body. I only demonstrate this on boys as, again, parents watching from a distance can't see where my hands are. These are just two examples. I won't befriend an under 16 that I know through training on Facebook. Of course this doesn't prevent the acts that I presume Harry Cook committed. but it goes some way. Hopefully we all have a child protection policy in place? Along with this goes knowing who to contact if you have concerns about one of your students.

BRyder's picture


I'm not quite sure what Harlan's point is in regards to "Good advice for after the fact...but what about before?" I'm not sure if the point was missed, but the purpose was to stimulate discussion.

We can't prevent this ever happening again, that is fact. We might have suspicion about someone, but it is hard to act correctly when this is based on instinct (often that has no rationale) so all we can do is rely on an open and constantly revised protection policy.

We cant rely on CRB style checks because their value is limited, but likewise we cannot ignore them. I didn;t want to suggest specific ways of dealing with the problem, because  I honestly believe that by discussing the issue with other instructors at the dojo, adults at the dojo and the parents of chid students then everyone KNOWS the possibilitiy is low but the protection measures have been considered and so they can FEEL safe, rather than people FEELING danger and not KNOWING what is being done about it. It needs to be included into the general risk assessment we already do (or should do) for the activity and environment. I have had a couple of messages and heard sugestions that completely miss the mark. One was "Its easy we just let the parents of children go wherever they want" which misses the point that the parent may be a risk too. The reality of these is that we are trying to balance the protection with providing a great learning environment, and so having absolutes rarely works, this is why the local discussion is so valuable to making procedures work and why I wanted to suggest we start talking about this issue more openly at our clubs.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

BRyder wrote:
The reality of these is that we are trying to balance the protection with providing a great learning environment, and so having absolutes rarely works, this is why the local discussion is so valuable to making procedures work and why I wanted to suggest we start talking about this issue more openly at our clubs.

Child protection polices are probably the best way to implement this. They are a requirement and all instructors of a given group will need to be aware of the child protection policy of that group. Indeed, for all the coaching / instructor qualifications I’ve been involved with have this as a mandatory requirement. All groups must have such a policy and all instructors in that group should be familiar with it.

The NSPCC have a good draft child protection policy which those here may find useful:


Introduction to NSPCC draft child protection policy wrote:
All sporting organisations which make provision for children and young people must ensure that:

- the welfare of the child is paramount

- all children, whatever their age, culture, disability, gender, language, racial origin religious beliefs and/or sexual identity have the right to protection from abuse

- all suspicions and allegations of abuse and poor practice will be taken seriously and responded to swiftly and appropriately

- all staff (paid/unpaid) working in sport have a responsibility to report concerns to the appropriate officer.

Staff/volunteers are not trained to deal with situations of abuse or to decide if abuse has occurred.

Perhaps one positive and simple thing that could be done is to provide all members and parents with a copy of the club’s child protection policy? That way everyone is aware of it – not just instructors - and openness would be encouraged?

The re is also value in ensuring everyone is aware of the good practise guidelines (such as the ones copied from the NSPCC draft below) to ensure such practise is followed and everyone knows what it and is not appropriate.

Good practise guidelines from NSPCC draft child protection policy wrote:

Good practice guidelines

All personnel should be encouraged to demonstrate exemplary behaviour in order to promote childrens welfare and reduce the likelihood of allegations being made. The following are common sense examples of how to create a positive culture and climate.

Good practice means:

  • Always working in an open environment (e.g. avoiding private or unobserved situations and encouraging open communication with no secrets).
  • Treating all young people/disabled adults equally, and with respect and dignity.
  • Always putting the welfare of each young person first, before winning or achieving goals.
  • Maintaining a safe and appropriate distance with players (e.g. it is not appropriate for staff or volunteers to have an intimate relationship with a child or to share a room with them).
  • Building balanced relationships based on mutual trust which empowers children to share in the decision-making process.
  • Making sport fun, enjoyable and promoting fair play.
  • Ensuring that if any form of manual/physical support is required, it should be provided openly and according to guidelines provided by the Coach Education Programme. Care is needed, as it is difficult to maintain hand positions when the child is constantly moving. Young people and their parents should always be consulted and their agreement gained.
  • Keeping up to date with technical skills, qualifications and insurance in sport.
  • Involving parents/carers wherever possible. For example, encouraging them to take responsibility for their children in the changing rooms. If groups have to be supervised in the changing rooms, always ensure parents, teachers, coaches or officials work in pairs.
  • Ensuring that if mixed teams are taken away, they should always be accompanied by a male and female member of staff. However, remember that same gender abuse can also occur.
  • Ensuring that at tournaments or residential events, adults should not enter children’s rooms or invite children into their rooms.
  • Being an excellent role model - this includes not smoking or drinking alcohol in the company of young people.
  • Giving enthusiastic and constructive feedback rather than negative criticism.
  • Recognising the developmental needs and capacity of young people and disabled adults - avoiding excessive training or competition and not pushing them against their will.
  • Securing parental consent in writing to act in loco parentis, if the need arises to administer emergency first aid and/or other medical treatment.
  • Keeping a written record of any injury that occurs, along with the details of any treatment given.
  • Requesting written parental consent if club officials are required to transport young people in their cars.

Practices to be avoided

The following should be avoided except in emergencies. If cases arise where these situations are unavoidable it should be with the full knowledge and consent of someone in charge in the club or the child’s parents. For example, a child sustains an injury and needs to go to hospital, or a parent fails to arrive to pick a child up at the end of a session:

  • avoid spending time alone with children away from others
  • avoid taking or dropping off a child to an event or activity.

Practices never to be sanctioned

The following should never be sanctioned. You should never:

  • engage in rough, physical or sexually provocative games, including horseplay
  • share a room with a child
  • allow or engage in any form of inappropriate touching
  • allow children to use inappropriate language unchallenged
  • make sexually suggestive comments to a child, even in fun
  • reduce a child to tears as a form of control
  • fail to act upon and record any allegations made by a child
  • do things of a personal nature for children or disabled adults, that they can do for themselves
  • invite or allow children to stay with you at your home unsupervised.

N.B.It may sometimes be necessary for staff or volunteers to do things of a personal nature for children, particularly if they are young or are disabled. These tasks should only be carried out with the full understanding and consent of parents and the players involved. There is a need to be responsive to a person’s reactions. If a person is fully dependent on you, talk with him/her about what you are doing and give choices where possible. This is particularly so if you are involved in any dressing or undressing of outer clothing, or where there is physical contact, lifting or assisting a child to carry out particular activities. Avoid taking on the responsibility for tasks for which you are not appropriately trained.

Incidents that must be reported/recorded

If any of the following occur you should report this immediately to the appropriate officer and record the incident. You should also ensure the parents of the child are informed:

  • if you accidentally hurt a player
  • if he/she seems distressed in any manner
  • if a player appears to be sexually aroused by your actions
  • if a player misunderstands or misinterprets something you have done.

I hope the above is useful to all readers and I do think there is value in widely distributing such a document to all members and parents as part of their membership materials.

All the best,


PASmith's picture

One thing I'm struck by, when seeing this sort of thing happen, documentaries etc, is how often these sorts of people have jobs or hobbies that put them in direct contact with children. Which when you think about it is what they'd have to do to get what they want.

We recently had a similar thing happen in York too. http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/9437653.Karate_ace_Liam_O_Grady_guilty_of_child_abuse/

To my mind if you want to work with kids you need to be prepared to be very well appraised and monitored.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

As I write this it is 6:15am on Tuesday the 10th of July. I’m in the office as there is a small TV in the corner which is tuned into the BBC 24 hour news channel. There has just been a report on safeguarding children in sport which did include a discussion on the case of Judo coach Alan Roberts who has been banned for life by the British Judo Association. There was also a discussion about the need for a body that would oversee all UK sporting bodies so a person who is barred by one body can simply not move to another sport; which seems like a very sensible idea to me. If you follow this link it will take you to the relevant BBC webpage:


There is also a radio program today on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm BST. It should also be available to listen to online and as a podcast in a few days. I thought this will be of interest to many here and it ties in nicely with this thread.

All the best,