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Kerr and Matildas defend team culture after harassment claims

Sydney (AFP) – Star striker Sam Kerr and her Australian teammates Monday backed veteran Lisa De Vanna after she made historic allegations of sexual harassment, but insisted the environment was now a “safe haven.”

De Vanna, who earned 150 caps for the Matildas before retiring in September, revealed last week she was regularly subject to predatory behaviour early in her career.

The 36-year-old detailed incidents including being propositioned in the changing room showers while a teenager and teammates pulling her down and “dry humping” her.

She said she did not know how to handle the situation at the time and had broken her silence because “it is still happening across all levels and it’s time to speak up”.

Former teammate Rhali Dobson also alleged she had been a target of sexual harassment, with Football Australia, which took over running the sport in 2005, pledging to investigate.

The claims came as allegations of sexual misconduct and abusive behaviour roil the women’s game in the United States and Venezuela.

The Australian squad issued a joint statement acknowledging “the seriousness of Lisa’s allegations about the past and we empathise with her for not feeling like she could come forth earlier”. 

“We stand supportive of athletes who are able to come forward and report instances of inappropriate behaviour in their respective environments, and therefore welcome an independent review into this matter,” they added.

But the team also made clear the current national team environment was safe, praising the “strong, professional, inclusive and supportive culture”.

Chelsea star and Australia captain Kerr said she had never felt threatened.

“I have been a part of this team for 12 amazing years, from 15 years old to now,” she said. 

“Throughout my career the Matildas have been a safe haven for me and allowed me to grow into the player and person I am today.”

Arsenal defender and vice-captain Steph Catley echoed similar sentiments.

“I have spent more time with these players and these staff members than I have with my own family at times, and I have always felt at home and safe,” she said. 

New Football Australia boss James Johnson has vowed to put in place a new approach to handling reports about harassment and bullying, suggesting probes must be dealt with independently rather than in-house.

“We’ve got to be proactive, we’ve got to be progressive, we’ve got to be transparent,” he told the Sydney Daily Telegraph Monday.

Regarding the De Vanna complaint, Johnson vowed to act “decisively and quickly” if anyone had stepped out of line.

The scandal comes after independent reviews found evidence of toxic culture and abuse in Australian women’s gymnastics and hockey, while Swimming Australia this year set up an independent panel to investigate “unacceptable behaviour” dating back decades.

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