Abuse Survivors Blog

Beyond the cheers: Addressing coach abuse in cheerleading

Written by Megan Hickey on 27 Mar 2024

coach_abuse_cheerleadingOur paralegal, Megan Hickey, has competed in national competitions as a cheerleader and is familiar with trust placed in coaches. Cheerleading is a contact sport that requires an immense amount of physical touch in order to carry parts of the routines, especially the stunting sequences. Responsible coaches are essential in this dangerous sport, not just due to its physical nature but also due to the trust involved.

Publicity about a UK cheerleading coach being sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for sexual abuse against children has highlighted the subject of coach sexual abuse in a relatively ‘’new’’ sport.  

On 5 February 2024, Tom Walsh, a former cheerleading coach, was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse against multiple girls and for possession and distribution of child abuse images at Bolton Crown Court. He was found guilty of 28 charges relating to sexual offences against children. Walsh was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with a further 5 years on license. Walsh also received a lifetime sexual harm prevention order and registered to the sex offender list for life.

Two of the victims were athletes at the cheerleading club Walsh assisted coaching at. Walsh was also a cheerleader himself.  

Walsh carried out most of his grooming and exploitation online, through social media platforms such as Snapchat. A screen recording software was found on his mobile which showed how he saved the child abuse images he received from the victims he exploited.

The crimes were detected by undercover officers (Regional Organised Crime Units) who communicated with Walsh online where he revealed to them his sexual interest in young girls.  

Detective Chief Inspector Suzanne Keenaghan, GMP Designated Force Co-ordinator for Child Protection in the Public Protection Division described Walsh as "manipulative, predatory and exploitative’" she also said ‘’for one victim, cheerleading was supposed to be a safe place, but Walsh used it as his hunting ground’’. The Detective Chief Inspector also highlighted that "abusers can be people you know and trust, and they can take advantage of that trust’’.  

Even though Walsh used online platforms like Snapchat to groom and manipulate his victims, he used the cheerleading trusting atmosphere as his "hunting ground".  

Cheerleading in England  

Cheerleading is a high energy, team-based performance sport that is athletic, artistic, and acrobatic. It is interdisciplinary, involving stunts, tumbling, jumps, dance, pyramids and tosses, combined to create exciting and engaging routines.

Cheerleading has been a competitive sport in England for 30 years. It is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, with over 89,000 athletes across the UK participating at community recreational, competitive, and elite level.

Regulation of cheerleading in England  

Cheerleading is similar to gymnastics in that the sport attracts a lot of young children.

SportCheer England has raised concern regarding cheerleading in England being unregulated. The governing body highlighted in their report in October 2022 that Sport Cheer England’s current safeguarding role is "significantly limited in capacity’’ as their involvement in concerns and pursuing cases"is either blocked or restricted’’.

Due to cheerleading becoming a more popular sport, a regulatory body is required. It is vital for children’s safety. There is currently two governing bodies: the UK Cheerleading Association and SportCheer England.

In comparison, cheerleading in the United States of America has a regulatory body, USA Cheer, who state that "all disciplines of Cheer are regulated to ensure safety’’.

Current possible avenues for redress if you have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of your cheerleading coach in England: 

1. Pursuing the abuser (perpetrator)

Whilst by no means straightforward, it is possible for victims of sexual abuse to pursue their compensation claims against the person who assaulted them, i.e. the cheerleading coach if it can be established that the perpetrator has sufficient assets (preferably property) to pay that compensation and legal costs. 

2. Pursuing the cheerleading club

If the cheerleading coach was employed by the cheerleading/gymnastics club, it may be possible to pursue the compensation claim against the club. This is due to the legal rule of vicarious liability, which assigns liability to an employer for their employee’s acts performed in the course of employment or other duty. 

3. A Criminal Injuries Compensation claim

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (‘CICA’) is a government-funded body who compensates eligible victims of violent and sexual crime. Victims can be compensated for physical and psychological injuries and in some cases financial expenses.  

For many victims of physical and sexual abuse, where the abuser is no longer alive or does not have enough money or assets to compensate the victim and there is no organisation (for example if the cheerleading club no longer exists or are insolvent) to claim against, the CICA scheme is the only form of redress. The CICA assesses all applications and if successful, an applicant will receive an award of compensation. 

If you have suffered sexual abuse (recent or non-recent) by a cheerleading coach, or in a sports setting and are wondering what to do about it, please don’t hesitate to contact us for an informal initial chat or download our eBook. which we hope may be of some assistance to you. We will be pleased to assist.

The abuse survivor's guide to making a claim for compensation

Topics: Child abuse, Sexual abuse

Megan Hickey

Written by Megan Hickey

Megan is our paralegal and holds a first-class honours degree in Law from the University of Kent. Megan assists on all our cases and is incredibly enthusiastic about advocating for our clients. She is a member of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers. She is also currently studying for her Solicitors Qualification Exam with BPP University and is due to qualify in early 2025.