As teenage girls, they raced down snow-covered Alpine slopes in pursuit of winning Olympic gold. They were revered by millions of Austrians who cheered them as national heroes, their best athletes, the pride of a small nation.
But to at least two national team skiing coaches, the girls were allegedly something else: sex objects, there to serve at their pleasure. “They are my girls, and I’m the one who will deflower them,” one of them allegedly bragged, according to witness testimony at a defamation trial brought by one of the coaches in western Austria earlier this month.
In November 2017, a few months after the first allegations of sexual abuse broke against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which he denies, the #MeToo movement also began to unravel Austria’s glorious skiing history. Nicola Werdenigg, a former Olympic skier, was the first to speak out on what she calls the systematic abuse of power that took place in the Austrian professional skiing community more than 40 years ago.
While Werdenigg did not explicitly name the male teammate she said raped her when she was 16 and her case never made it to court, by sharing her experience, others have been encouraged to go also public with their stories.
In doing so, they’ve taken a risk.
In contrast to defamation lawsuits in the United States, where the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s statements are untrue and made with negligence or actual malice, Austrian defamation laws stipulate that the burden of proof lies with the accuser, according to two Austrian lawyers.
Over the last year, at least three other female skiers have come forward with more explicit allegations of sexual abuse, speaking out in the media about how coaches and others entrusted with their safety and well-being raped or attempted to rape them, intoxicated them to coerce them into sex, and expected sexual favors in exchange for preferable treatment.
Students and former students of prestigious schools for skiers have also come forward in the media, saying that sexual abuse among students was part of the schools’ culture up until at least the 1990s. Many coaches and teachers, they said, were aware. This year, a teacher at one of those schools was sentenced for committing or attempting to commit sexual assault.
Another skier, Helen Scott-Smith – who trained under Austrian coaches – said there was a culture where young skiers were seen as “fresh meat.”
In early 2018, the Austrian Ski Federation (ÖSV) set up a commission to investigate the abuse allegations. The ÖSV said they found that sexual abuse within the ÖSV occurs less frequently than in other institutions of comparable sizes.
While the ÖSV commission found no systemic abuse, an ÖSV spokesperson said that it acknowledges there might have been “incredible regrettable individual cases.”
Dina Nachbaur, the executive director of White Ring (weißer Ring), an NGO that provides support to crime victims, says she believes that some survivors didn’t report their abuse to the ÖSV commission because it was “seen by many as being too close to the ÖSV.” She says that around the same time that the ÖSV commission was running at least 12 people called their hotline, detailing cases of abuse in sport, including allegations of sexual abuse within the Austrian skiing community.
By sharing their stories, the skiers fear retribution in work and society – the same stigma that plagues many victims of sexual abuse across the world. But in Austria, experts and victims CNN has spoken to say that fear is compounded by a legal system with a generous definition of privacy and defamation. On top of risking a defamation lawsuit and a criminal conviction, the victims could also face the humiliation – and at times financial loss – of having to pay compensation to the very men they say abused them.
“I can tell you that this really is a big issue for many women,” said Maria Windhager, a lawyer in Vienna who’s been counseling media and individuals on defamation lawsuits for almost 20 years.
Under Austrian defamation law, any person openly accusing a public figure of sexual abuse can face a lawsuit, and, unless they can prove that the abuse did happen or convince a judge that they truly believed that it happened, they can be sentenced to six months to a year in prison, or to pay a fine.
However, in the most “twisted” cases, accusers can even end up paying compensation to their alleged perpetrator, according to Sonja Aziz, a lawyer for domestic abuse and sexual violence victims.
In Austria, the bar to secure a sexual assault conviction is high, and convictions more often occur when there is hard evidence, such as surveillance video, text messages or eyewitness testimony of the assault, according to Windhager and Aziz.
“From the beginning, that’s what I was always scared of – that they’d sue me,” says Julia, a former skier whose name has been changed for fear of retribution.
Julia, 66, says that she was sexually assaulted by the esteemed national team coach, Karl “Charly” Kahr, when she was 23.
Kahr denies those allegations.
When Julia first came forward with the allegations in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung to support the claims of her friend, Werdenigg, she says she left out accusations she felt could be libelous. Süddeutsche Zeitung asked Julia and two others who alleged rampant sexual abuse in the skiing community to sign an affidavit before taking their stories to print, a way the paper thought it could protect itself from a lawsuit.
Kahr – who earned the nickname “Downhill Charly” during his tenure as the national team coach in the 1960s and 70s – sued the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper in early 2018.
In addition, Kahr, 86, filed a separate lawsuit against Julia and her husband over a series of private WhatsApp messages they sent to Kahr’s long-time friend and former skiing protégé, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, accusing him of rape. Those messages were read in court during the defamation trial against the couple this month.
Julia and her husband had written to Moser-Pröll in response to an appearance she had made on national television in 2017. Moser-Pröll said on that program that she didn’t know anything about any sexual assault allegations in the Austrian skiing community and that she felt “sorry” that they were casting a bad light on the hard-working men who had supported her career.
Shocked by her decision to defend the former coaches, Julia and her husband say they wrote to Moser-Pröll to “remind” her what kind of man they believed Kahr and another former head coach, Toni Sailer – Austria’s sportsman of the century who died in 2009 – to be.
“You should be ashamed to defend Charly Kahr, who, along with Toni Sailer, raped many women and broke them,” Julia’s husband wrote in one WhatsApp message, which has been seen by CNN and was read out as part of the defamation charge in court this month.
Moser-Pröll showed those messages to Kahr, who then sued Julia and her husband for spreading a malicious falsehood, a criminal charge defined as making damaging, unsubstantiated claims about a person to a third party or more.
During the defamation trial, witnesses described extortionist pornography, adultery, and the alleged rape of teenage fans, detailing violent acts and orgies.
Austrians consider skiing their national sport, and the alleged perpetrators and victims are as famous to them as global superstars such as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan. The allegations against Kahr shocked Austrians, the majority of whom live in the countryside and hold conservative values.
This extends to the men and women working in the judiciary, says Sonja Aziz, who has been defending survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence for seven years.
Although judges and prosecutors are required to spend time in victim protection facilities during their training, this does not necessarily include training on sexual abuse, trauma and its effects on survivors, Austria’s Ministry of Justice said.
“There’s a lack of understanding, and so the justice system often doesn’t believe women because they aren’t the ‘perfect victim,’” Aziz says, emphasizing how difficult it can be to prove assault in a court of law.
This culture of fear has a particularly harrowing effect on those who’ve survived sexual abuse and violence by their own partners. Recent headlines about women being sued by their alleged abusers could exacerbate this feeling, Aziz said. When she counsels women, many of them bring up concerns about being sued on their own; Aziz says she openly addresses the risk of being sued with those who don’t.
When a victim is not believed by the judge and prosecutor, charges are quickly dropped: a staggering 87% of men accused of rape in Austria walk free, according to Frauenberatung, the national women’s counseling center on sexual violence.
But Aziz has also worked on cases in which women were then prosecuted for libel – meaning that they were accused of intending to harm someone by wrongfully accusing that person of a serious crime.
In one case, a woman who filed a complaint against her abusive husband ended up being prosecuted for libel by the court due to testimony deemed “dubious,” according to Aziz. She says her client was given a suspended sentence and later ordered to pay financial damages to the man who’d made her suffer for years.
“In the end, she was just relieved that she didn’t have to go to jail,” Aziz says.
While there are no figures on how many women have been sentenced for defamation after speaking out against their abuser, national criminal conviction statistics indicate that, when it comes to the crime of malicious falsehood, (which often relates to a person’s believability and includes defamation) women accounted for more than 37 percent of all convictions. When it comes to the overall crime rate, women make up less than 15 percent.
One notable defamation case is that of Sigrid Maurer, a 33-year-old former parliamentarian and outspoken feminist. In May 2018, Maurer posted sexually harassing Facebook messages she’d received from the owner of a craft beer shop to her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Shortly after, she received a letter informing her that he was suing for malicious falsehood and damaging his business’ reputation. He denied the allegations and was seeking 60,000 Euros in damages.
“I thought that this (lawsuit) was completely ridiculous,” Maurer said.
Because of Austria’s defamation laws, the burden of proof – that the messages could have only been sent from the shop owner – rested in Maurer’s hands. While she thought the shop owner’s defense was absurd, the judge ruled that it was plausible that someone had hacked into the man’s account, or that a customer had accessed his laptop while he left his store unattended. Maurer was fined 7,000 Euros – 4,000 of which was to be paid to the man directly.
“I wouldn’t recommend to do what I did,” Maurer said, following the trial’s outcome.
Lawsuits could “easily cost 20,000 Euros and more – nobody has that kind of money,” she said.
Still, Maurer says she doesn’t want women to feel deterred, and points to a fund that has been established to help pay for cases that could establish a positive precedent.
Windhager, Maurer’s lawyer, said that if Maurer had sought counsel before posting to her social media accounts, she would have told her to keep the shop owner’s name and business anonymous.
In another case, in February 2018, 60 members of the Burgtheater in Vienna, one of the most influential German-language theaters in the world, banded together to write an open letter accusing their former boss of describing a black actor as a “dancing [n-word]”, and who allegedly made derogatory jokes about homosexuals and asked actresses whether they would perform oral sex. The group sought Windhager’s counsel. She advised the group to only include accusations that were verified by a large number of witnesses in the letter, which was published in local media.
“There was a lot that wasn’t addressed because it wouldn’t have been provable,” Windhager said of that case.
The former theater boss publicly refuted all the allegations in the media, initially saying that he was “misunderstood” and that he was just joking. After he was fired from his post, which happened prior to the open letter and for reasons not relating to it, he said that the allegations were made in a concerted effort to harm him.
Speaking on behalf his client, the former theater boss’ communication manager said the open letter was the “first time” that he had “heard about some of the accusations,” and quoted his client’s response to the allegations:
“Theater is certainly a place where it’s particularly difficult to draw boundaries. But this may not serve as an excuse to overstep them. If this happened, I apologize…many have afterwards contacted me to assure me, that they are distancing themselves from this (accusation/letter) because it does not match their own perception,” he said.
In Austria, the fact that a defamation suit can quickly turn a victim into a perpetrator has stopped many who felt empowered by the #MeToo movement from speaking out against public figures, Windhager says.
“You have to assume that there are cases like this in all the big cultural institutions, but the women remain silent,” she said.
Manfred Ainedter, the lawyer of the accused former national coach, Karl Kahr, said that he has sympathy for those coming forward with accusations of sexual violence – “if it’s true,” he said.
Dabbing his cigarette into an ashtray, from his office in Vienna, Ainedter emphasized that he was a founding member of an NGO that helps children who suffered from physical and sexual abuse.
But as a lawyer he looks to protect his client’s rights.
Ainedter read out statements that Julia and her husband had made in a previous hearing, accusing Kahr of sexual misconduct. He rolled his eyes and pointed his fingers to his temple, as if to simulate shooting himself over parts he thought were implausible.
Commenting on the accusations, he said, “Someone like Charly Kahr can’t let that go,” adding that he’ll sue those trying to defame him, “come hell or high water.”
Asked if he thinks that such lawsuits could have a chilling effect on survivors of sexual abuse, he replied: “No.”
The women affected, however, beg to differ.
When Julia and her husband received a letter from Ainedter threatening to sue, they say they were initially panic stricken. They feel the message was clear: “They were telling us that we should remain silent,” she said. “But not anymore.”
As a retiree, Julia had the time it took to prepare for the trial, anticipating the questions that she was eventually asked about her alleged assault some 40 years prior. Which arm had the intoxicated Kahr grabbed when he violently pulled her into his hotel room? Did the skiing boot she threw to defend herself hit the coach? How many minutes did she spend locked in the bathroom before she dared to leave?
Julia and her husband say their vindication was delivered on a snowy day in early January, in Bludenz, a historic village of 14,000. A security guard knitted Tannenbaum-green baby socks while the judge, weighed her arguments inside a small, packed court room.
Moser-Pröll, who was in the gallery and had expected to testify in support of Kahr, left in protest shortly before the verdict was announced – calling the trial a circus by using the word “Kasperltheater,” a type of slapstick children’s puppet show. Kahr hadn’t shown up.
The former skier and her husband won the case. The judge made it clear that there could be no decision on what had actually happened, but that neither Julia nor her husband were wrong in their actions.
Immediately after the trial concluded, Ainedter, speaking on behalf of his client Kahr, said that they would appeal the decision.
But two days after Kahr lost his defamation suit, he withdrew his lawsuit against the newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung.
For Julia, regardless of the threat of an appeal, the outcome still feels like a victory.
Clinking glasses with her husband, Julia said she hopes that other survivors will come forward. But, given how emotionally and physically draining and time-consuming the trial was, she understands if they don’t.
“That we were the ones accused of a crime,” she said, still shaking her head in disbelief.
“It’s just so daunting.”
This story has been updated to clarify why and when the former Burgtheater boss was fired from his post.