The Football Association, the Premier League and major clubs have issued formal apologies after a landmark investigation said generations of young footballers suffered horrific sexual abuse due to the complete absence of child protection policies, ignorance and naivety.
Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the investigation found the FA guilty of “institutional failure” for its delay in introducing safeguards after 1995, when Barry Bennell and some high-profile abusers in other sports had already been prosecuted and convicted. .
“The FA was too slow to introduce the appropriate measures … for child protection [from 1995]. These are major institutional failures for which there is no excuse. During this period, the FA did not do enough to keep the children safe. “
Bennell’s abuse of footballer Andy Woodward was first reported by The Guardian in 2016, prompting hundreds more victims to come forward, police investigations and convictions, and the FA launched the Sheldon investigation.
The 700-page Sheldon report was recognized by major soccer institutions and the FA agreed to accept all of its key recommendations, primarily around protection. “Today is a dark day for beautiful sport,” said Mark Bullingham, FA executive director. “One in which we must acknowledge the mistakes of the past and make sure we do everything possible to prevent them from happening again.”
But Ian Ackley, a victim of Bennell’s abuse, and some other survivors criticized the strength of those recommendations, arguing that such measures should have been introduced immediately after the scandals emerged in 2016.
There was also widespread outrage over the report’s release that Dario Gradi, the veteran coach who worked alongside Bennell at Crewe, told Sheldon in an interview “that he did not consider a person reaching into someone else’s pants was an assault”. Gradi called it a “petty touch.” Sheldon stated that he told Gradi it was an assault, “and then he accepted it.”
The investigation identified failures to act appropriately on complaints or rumors of sexual abuse at eight professional clubs, including Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Southampton, Peterborough, and at Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra and Stoke City, where Bennell was a youth coach. Sheldon found that, in general, soccer and young people who played the sport were vulnerable to abuse due to the absence of a safeguard culture, that victims were intimidated, scared or manipulated into silence, and very few specific reports of abuse. they were made inside the clubs. , or to the FA.
Before 1995, Sheldon said the FA did “nothing proactive to address safeguarding and protect children from child sexual abuse in sport.” There was no general orientation, training or awareness on child protection issues from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, and people working in soccer “did not perceive the signs of possible abuse.”
However, Sheldon absolved the FA of criticism during those decades when the sport had no child protection for its young players, placing that in the context of general attitudes at the time. “I do not consider the FA’s inaction during this period to be reprehensible. For most of this period, child abuse was generally viewed as occurring in family or residential settings, and not within the world of sport. “
Sheldon added, however, that when club abuse incidents were reported, “their responses were rarely competent or appropriate,” and where there were “red flags”, such as rumors of inappropriate behavior, staff often passed them by. high or not taking any action.
“This was generally out of ignorance or naivety. There was often a feeling that without “hard evidence” or a specific allegation of a child, nothing could or should be done, leading to a reluctance to investigate or monitor, let alone confront the perpetrator and interfere in his actions. As a result, in many cases, the perpetrators were able to hide inside soccer and use their positions to ruin the lives of many children.
During two stints at Crewe, Bennell sexually abused young players, including Woodward. Considering the controversial accounts of what the seniors at the club knew about Bennell, Sheldon concluded that they did not receive any specific reports of abuse, a conclusion also reached by the Cheshire police.
However, Sheldon said that he did believe that concerns about inappropriate behavior, including children staying at Bennell’s home, had been discussed by then-President Norman Rowlinson, Director John Bowler, who succeeded Rowlinson as president, and another director, Hamilton Smith.
“I am also pleased that, during Bennell’s time at the Club, rumors circulated about [Bennell] and his sexual interest in children who were heard by some members of the Club’s staff, including Dario Gradi ”. Sheldon said the club “should have done more to monitor the well-being of the boys” and monitored Bennell’s activities.
Similar criticisms were directed at Manchester City, where Bennell was associated as a coach in the early 1980s, and Stoke City, where he went after leaving Crewe in the early 1990s.
Chelsea were found to have failed to provide protection to a young player who reported abuse by youth coach Eddie Heath in 1975. Sheldon said he could not decide whether Gradi, who was then Chelsea’s assistant manager, informed the interim manager of the club, Ron Suart. , from concerns raised in a meeting with the player’s father. Either way, either Gradi or Suart’s response was inadequate, he found.
“Aston Villa FC should have reported disclosures about sexual abuse by [the youth coach] Ted Langford to the police when his role as a scout ended in July 1989, “the report says.
Newcastle delayed acting in the face of reports of abuse from George Ormond, who was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison; he remained at the club for “many months” after the reports were made.
Peterborough and Southampton were also aware of rumors about the behavior of their youth coach Bob Higgins, Sheldon discovered, but took no steps to monitor him: “If Higgins had been properly monitored, this could have prevented some of his abuses against young players.” .
Sheldon also highlighted the lack of criminal background checks for adults who work with young children. Frank Roper had criminal convictions in 1960, 1961 and 1965, but was still heavily involved in youth coaching, linked to Blackpool FC and serially abused young players, including Paul Stewart, one of the victims who has spoken out about the abuse.
While acknowledging the FA’s review of child protection after 2000 and the substantial improvements since then, Sheldon made 13 recommendations for further improvements. These include: having full-time qualified protection officers in Premier League and Championship clubs and qualified officers in League One and League Two clubs who dedicate a minimum of 50% of their time to protection; that a member of the FA board be appointed “champion of child protection”; that the FA develop a five-year strategy “to support the voice of children”, expand on-the-spot checks on amateur clubs, hold a “national football safeguarding day” and publish an annual safeguarding report.
Offside Trust, which is run by survivors, said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed that the opportunity to create a world-class standard of child protection and safeguarding in sport has been missed.
“The recommendations are ones that would have been blindingly obvious to anyone a few weeks after the scandal broke. The FA should have immediately made these basic changes around training, awareness, spot checks and transparency without waiting for a 700 page report. “
The FA, despite Sheldon’s conclusion that his inaction was not “guilty”, issued a “sincere apology” to the survivors and appeared to accept some responsibility for the abuse that had not been recognized and prevented.
The Premier League and EFL also apologized for the abuse and said they would implement the report’s recommendations. Manchester City, Newcastle, Southampton and Peterborough issued statements apologizing to the victims; Southampton said: “For a professional football club not to prevent this abuse or to be able to provide support to anyone who speaks up to report it is inexcusable.”
City, who published an investigation by Jane Mulcahy QC into abuse perpetrated at the club by Bennell and two other historical abusers, John Broome and Bill Toner, said they had established a survivor plan in 2019 that offers compensation, paid and personal counseling. apologies from a senior director of the board.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism