On Tuesday, February 9, 2021, the U.S. Center for SafeSport placed 2012 World Cup Final champion and Olympian Rich Fellers and his wife Shelley Fellers on Temporary Suspension due to allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Both have a no contact directive from the Center.
Eighteen-year-old Maggie Kehring, a former student of Rich Fellers Stables LLC, came forward publicly as the alleged victim the following day.
“I know it is hard for my peers, friends, coaches, and strangers to understand the suspension of my former trainer and his wife. It is important to know this investigation and process has been underway for many, many months. I initially did not want to participate in the SafeSport process out of confusion and fear. I struggled with the thought the world would know that what occurred to me for many years would lead to someone America came to love to possibly be banned from the sport,” Kehring wrote in an Instagram post:.
In what is becoming an alarming trend when an accomplished equestrian athlete is subject to a SafeSport investigation (see: George Morris and Robert Gage), the online backlash against the accuser has been quick and callous. A news item on The Chronicle of the Horse Facebook page has over one thousand comments, many of which cast doubt on the alleged victim.
Kehring referenced these comments in her post: “Reading what people have posted on social media is cruel and heartless. I can only hope what happened to me never happens to them or someone they love. No one needs to take sides.”
She continued, “What happened to me is something I can never get back and I am working every day on coping with that realization. Things were taken from me that people will simply not understand. I don’t understand why me, either. But I can assure you of this, what happened, happened! There is no revenge, there are no lies. Just the pure and simple truth. I know my future holds people who will look at me with anger and those that will support me. Just know, I was a junior.”
The specifics of this case, beyond those disclosed in Kehring’s post, have yet to be revealed—and may never be. What we do know is that child sexual abuse is an endemic problem in horse sport, as evidenced by the growing list of SafeSport bans and the increasing number of victims coming forward. We also know that the trauma of these experiences can have lifelong consequences.
“Experiencing child sexual abuse is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can affect how a person thinks, acts, and feels over a lifetime, resulting in short- and long-term physical and mental/emotional health consequences,” reports the Center for Disease Control.
What conclusion SafeSport comes to in the Fellers case remains to be seen. But perhaps what we should be looking at more closely is our own reactions. How we respond to these cases going forward—because more will emerge—needs to change if we want to enact real change. Putting an end to the cultural conditions that allow sexual misconduct to perpetuate requires a concerted and outspoken shift in how we talk to and about survivors.
And that can feel hard. Many people don’t know what to do or how to support someone who reveals that they’ve been sexually assaulted. But we can all learn.
Here are a few key concepts to keep in mind:
1. Put your feelings in a bucket
If someone shares their experience with you, you may have your own set of intense feelings. This is perfectly normal. However, it is essential to remember it is not about you. While it is ok to feel rage, fear, shock, grief, and an array of other things, set those feelings aside and simply listen.
“Listen. Be there. Communicate without judgment,” advises the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
2. Listen and validate
As you listen, do not to pass judgment, minimize or question the experience. An assault of any kind is never the victim’s fault, nor is it your job to know every detail of the entire story.
It is also crucial that you express that you believe the person and empathize with them. Victims of abuse often blame themselves, feel a deep sense of confusion and shame, and have trouble with decision making.
Not sure what to say? Here are a few phrases RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline staff recommend to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process:
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.”
3. Report if it is a child, support if it is an adult
If the person reporting an incident of sexual abuse to you is a minor, contact law enforcement or other family services in your area. Doctors, teachers, clergy members, and social workers are known as mandatory reporters and are required by law to report child abuse.
Protocol is less cut and dry if the victim is an adult. Gently encouraging mental health treatment or that the individual report the incident to police is a great start. But be too forceful in your suggestions (ie, insist they take action) and it may feel like yet another violation. Ultimately, the “person who was traumatized needs to be the one to decide on what actions to take, and when,” advises psycom.
4. Keep checking in
Support for the survivor often dwindles as time passes, but healing can take years. A quick “how are you holding up?” or “I am here if you ever need to talk” goes a long way in helping survivors feel supported, shares RAINN.
5. Take care of yourself
A troubling aspect of sexual violence is that listening to someone else’s story can often bring up old experiences of our own. Take care of yourself. Make sure that you, the listener, have someone who can support you and listen to your feelings. Make sure you respect your boundaries and take care of yourself too.
If it feels like too much, RAINN has great resources, including a free and confidential 24 hour hotline.
All of the advice above is about what to do after sexual abuse has occurred. But empowering athletes and individuals to have the confidence to speak out is also one of the ways we prevent it from happening in the first place. A culture of silence and retaliation is the weapon of the abuser and one we all have the power to remove—simply by speaking up.