‘I was used as sexual bait in nothing but a sick game and I was mistreated when I should have been nurtured … My mum and I were sent away when we should have been met with helping hands.’
Sally’s daughter Jodie was an elite junior sportswoman. She wanted to be a professional player and from the age of nine was already travelling around Australia to compete.
All the young players travelled in the same social circle. Everyone knew everyone else, chatting either in person or online.
About 10 years ago, when she was in her mid-teens, Jodie got a message through social media from a boy she didn’t know, who also played her sport. He was apologising for not texting her back.
She told him that they’d never spoken. He said ‘we’ve been talking for three months’.
She started getting lots and lots of messages from boys she didn’t know. And some prank calls. Then a friend contacted Jodie. Someone claiming to be her had texted him an explicit sexual image and asked for one in return. He forwarded it to Jodie so she could see for herself.
Lots of boys in the sport were now receiving images - headless naked images, images of female genitals. The texts, and then eventually emails, were coming from different numbers. All of the senders were claiming to be Jodie.
Boys called in the middle of the night to abuse her.
‘Everyone hated me. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. Everyone thought I was a slut. All the girls would start bitching and everywhere I went people would ask me about the messages. I would deny it but they would just stare at me.’
For over a year Jodie was tormented by calls from other players that consisted of physical threats, hysterical laughter and ‘the worst possible name-calling’.
When graffiti about her started appearing on toilet walls, her self-worth eroded completely. She avoided playing altogether.
She went to her mother, distraught. Sally talked to the CEO of the sport’s state body, who was sympathetic but took no action. Then she went to the police who ‘didn’t want to know about it’. They told her to go to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Sally passed on the phone number that Jodie had. The AFP didn’t tell them who owned the number, because of privacy laws. In fact they didn’t tell her much at all. Sally felt that she wasn’t being taken seriously. Everyone thought it was girls ‘being bitchy’.
The AFP then referred the case to Child Protection Operations. It got traction. Suddenly it became an investigation.
For two years Jodie and Sally didn’t know who the suspect was. Then after a police raid on his home, which turned up child pornography, the man was charged.
It was John Maxwell - a coach Jodie had only met once, years before. He was posing as Jodie, sending images to boys and requesting photos of them in return. ‘The reason he had chosen her is because she was so attractive’, Sally was told. ‘He knew that the boys would talk to her.’
Other children had been targeted by him as well. Maxwell pleaded guilty and served his sentence. Neither Jodie nor her mother found out when he was released, or whether he is still coaching somewhere.
The thing that annoyed Sally was that ‘even after he was charged, convicted, and sent to prison’ none of the sporting bodies involved acknowledged that the abuse had happened. By then Jodie had given up playing altogether.
‘When it ended, and I mean legally ended,’ Jodie wrote to the Commission, ‘I was a scarily mature 18 year old, with depression. There was no physical element in my experience with John Maxwell and I always considered myself one of the unbelievably lucky ones because of this.’
But Jodie is ‘horribly saddened’ that she considered herself lucky despite being ‘humiliated, objectified, bullied, isolated and used as a sexual pawn …
‘This person took the best of my teenage years and my [sports] years, stripped me of any and all confidence and forced me to grow up much sooner than I should have had to. But worst of all he took from me my love, passion and commitment for … the sport that I dedicated my life to since I was five, the sport that I gave everything to in the hope that one day it would become my life.’
After Maxwell, ‘I had nothing but fear of the sport, fear of the people who were supposed to be our protectors and role models, and fear of men’.
Jodie is terrified for the kids who may go through this experience without the sort of support that she had.
‘I just needed one person, preferably someone who had authority, to do something, to believe me.’
Social media makes this situation harder to detect and prevent but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done, Jodie told the Commission. The peak sports body should have acknowledged it and raised awareness for other junior players.
Sports coaches also need to be better monitored or screened, Sally added.
Jodie hasn’t yet had any counselling. She is anxious, hypervigilant and finds it difficult to trust men.
‘I learnt at a young age that a man can do or say what he likes about me and people will believe him.’