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Football’s sex abuse scandal: Report finds FA put children at risk amid ‘significant institutional failings’

Written by on 17 March 2021

A long-awaited report into child sexual abuse in football has found “significant institutional failings” on the part of the Football Association and concluded that the national governing body put children at risk over a five-year period.

The review, which has taken four years to complete, investigated child sexual abuse in football between 1970 and 2005.

It found that the FA did not take issues of child protection seriously until the mid-1990s.

Before that, when much of the abuse of young boys was alleged to have taken place, the FA had not provided any guidance to clubs as to how to deal with issues of child protection.

The report states that after the first criminal conviction of prolific offender Barry Bennell for child sex offences in Florida in 1995, the FA acted “far too slowly to introduce appropriate and sufficient child protection measures”.

Barry Bennell was a youth-team coach at Crewe Alexandra Image: Bennell was a youth-team coach at Crewe Alexandra

Clive Sheldon QC, the report’s author, wrote: “The FA should have engaged more deeply with the issue of child protection and should have acted more quickly to bring in comprehensive measures to safeguard children in the game.

“These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period (October 1995 and May 2000, when the FA launched its comprehensive child protection programme), the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”

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There were also historical failings identified involving Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra, Stoke, Peterborough and Southampton.

The FA commissioned the independent report in 2016 after several men, led by Andy Woodward, waived their right to anonymity to reveal they had been the victims of sexual abuse committed by individuals in football clubs, such as coaches and scouts.

The report focusses on Mr Woodward’s abuser Barry Bennell and four other convicted sex offenders who worked within football – Bob Higgins, Frank Roper, George Ormond and Ted Langford.

It also delves into the abuse allegedly committed by Chris Gieler, Eddie Heath and Kit Carson. All three have not been criminally convicted.

Former footballer Andy Woodward Image: The report was commissioned in 2016 after several men, led by Andy Woodward (pictured), waived their right to anonymity

Some survivors provided testimony to Mr Sheldon stating their belief that there was a paedophile ring in football, but the report did not arrive at that conclusion.

Mr Sheldon stated: “I have looked at the connections between certain perpetrators. It is clear that several of the perpetrators knew each other.

“I do not consider, however, that there was a ‘paedophile ring’ in football: that is, I do not consider that perpetrators shared boys with one another for sexual purposes, or shared information with one another that would have facilitated child sexual abuse.”

Mr Sheldon said former Crewe manager Dario Gradi was among those who “should have done more” to investigate concerns raised about Bennell – although he was not involved in a cover-up.

When discussing the general scope of the abuse with the inquiry, Gradi said “that he did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be assault”.

Although when Mr Sheldon pointed out that it was, Gradi “accepted this”.

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Ex-football boss ‘nothing to say’ on sex abuse report

The report is 707 pages long and is based on evidence from 62 survivors and 157 further individuals.

The corresponding police investigation, Operation Hydrant, has identified 240 suspects within football and 692 survivors.

The accounts of survivors contained within the report are harrowing.

One unnamed victim writes: “The abuse started more or less straight away when I joined a boys’ team at age 11 which had loose links with the club.

“It was my coach who abused me, but he was also the physio for the club and he would take me into the little physio room at the club, lock the door and touch me.”

“Society was different then,” he says. “No DBS checks, no CRB checks, no qualifications, level one or level two, not even for physios.

“I mean, he was a physio at the club and he didn’t even have a qualification for physiotherapy.”

The report makes 13 recommendations, including publishing a safeguarding report every year and having an annual “safeguarding in football” day.

Mr Sheldon wrote: “I do not want to give the impression that abuse in football was commonplace. It was not. The overwhelming majority of young people who engaged in the sport were able to do so safely.”

But the report does state that there was a considerable amount of abuse. It is expected to trigger an apology from the FA later today.

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In a conference call following the publication, Mr Sheldon said: “The report shines a light on an issue that for too long remained in the shadows…

“I know it (report publication) has taken far longer than many survivors wished for, and far longer than I expected or wanted.

“I share their frustrations. I judge it better to have completed the work thoroughly than quickly.”

Julian Knight, MP and chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said the FA’s failings were “truly shocking”.

He said: “There can be no excuses for the critical delays to act or provide guidance to those working on child protection.

“We could be looking at the biggest safeguarding scandal in football’s history.”

The Offside Trust, an organisation founded and run by survivors of child sexual abuse in sport, said the report’s findings were “blindingly obvious”.

The Trust added: “We are deeply disappointed that an opportunity to create a world-class standard of child protection and safeguarding in sport has been missed.

“The recommendations are ones which would have been blindingly obvious to anyone within a few weeks of the scandal breaking.

“The FA should have immediately made these most basic of changes around training, awareness, spot checks and transparency without waiting for a 700-page report.”

Meanwhile, a lawyer representing over 40 football abuse survivors said the report underscored the extent to which young people were “failed”.

Kim Harrison, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said: “It is clear from the findings of the report that those in positions of power within football failed children in their supervision and care and for our clients nothing can bring back their lost childhoods blighted by abuse.

“Survivors feel failed by the FA and the various football clubs involved and this report and the way the FA have handled matters has left them feeling further let down.”

If you need further information or help dealing with the impact of child abuse, for either you or someone close to you, please click here to see a list of organisations