Child abuse in football – and sport in general
In the last few days, there has been extensive disclosure of child abuse suffered by a number of footballers at clubs across the country. At the current time, it is understood four police forces are investigating the allegations and that an NSPCC hotline has already received more than 100 calls. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association has recently said over 20 former players have disclosed child abuse and that this includes abuse at clubs such as Crewe Alexandra, Manchester City, Stoke City and Newcastle United.
These disclosures follow the Guardian’s coverage of the abuse suffered by Andy Woodward and Steve Walters at the hands of Barry Bennell, a football coach at Crewe Alexandra FC. It is believed this is ‘the tip of an iceberg’ with Bennell estimated to have abused hundreds of boys due to his powerful role as a youth coach and talent scout in football.
In 1994, Bennell served a four year prison sentence in Florida after he admitted to the buggery and indecent assault of a boy he was accompanying on a football tour. He then served nine years in England for 23 specimen offences against six boys aged 9 to 15. One of those boys was Andy Woodward. Bennell was most recently sentenced to two years in prison in May 2015 for sexually assaulting a 12 year old on a football course in Macclesfield. At the current time, Bennell is out of prison on licence.
Extent of abuse in sport
I am a solicitor specialising in child abuse cases and my firm has dealt with a number of cases involving child abuse within sport, to include:
The key component in all of these cases is that regardless of the sport, there is always an adult who takes advantage of their position of authority as a sports coach to groom and manipulate a child before sexually abusing them.
Abuse sadly has no barriers, whether that be sport, sex, ability, age, nationality, race or any other factor.
The unique features of abuse in sport
Stranger danger when it comes to child abuse is largely a myth. We now know that abuse is carried out by people we trust and look up to, such as sport coaches. Their role also enables them to be trusted by the general public and parents to look after children and it allows them to in effect operate under a screen of respectability.
This power however can be used to groom and manipulate children, and to then sexually abuse them. This is sadly what we have seen recently in the child abuse cases in football.
Once the abuse has taken place, many survivors find it difficult to disclose their abuse for fear of not being believed and the reaction they will receive from the local community for making allegations against often a popular member of society. This often silences survivors for decades and sometimes forever.
Due to the macho environment of sport, it is difficult enough for people to disclose homosexuality as an active sportsperson, let alone disclose something like child abuse. As a large amount of abuse in sport is same-sex, this often causes sexual confusion in children and it also prevents them from reporting their abuse as they concerned how others will judge them or if they will be blamed for the offences taking place. It is never the fault of the child for sexual abuse taking place. We need an urgent cultural change to ensure that victims of these abhorrent crimes feel able to disclose their abuse and that they know they will be supported in doing so.
I have recently provided my comments on child abuse within sport to BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC World News and LBC Radio.
You will be believed
I support the Football Association’s decision to conduct an inquiry and I would also ask the Independent Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry to expand their scope to include child abuse in sport.
In particular, I want an investigation into the alleged confidentiality agreements that a number of football clubs forced survivors to sign. These “gagging orders” are intended to purely silence survivors. It is my opinion that these “gagging orders” have enabled child abuse to continue and thrive in sport as a number of children would have suffered abuse in the fear nobody else had gone through what they had suffered or the fear they had not been believed. The life of a child should always be worth more than the prestige or finances of a football club. I think it is despicable if clubs have forced survivors to sign “gagging orders” to protect their own interests and reputation, and it is disgraceful that clubs could treat the lives of children as pure commodities or as an inconvenience that can be paid off and hidden from public knowledge.
I have never advised a child abuse survivor to agree to a gagging order and I will never do so – for far too long survivors have had their voices silenced and nobody should have the control to prevent them from being able to tell their story.
Survivors deserve justice and closure, and this includes finally obtaining answers as to how abusers were able to harm them without risk of repercussion for such a long period of time.
I urge every survivor of abuse, whether that be at the hands of a sports coach or anybody else, to disclose their abuse in the knowledge that they will be believed and that the police will investigate their allegations. It is only by discussing child abuse in public will we ensure that children know they are not alone and that nobody should suffer abuse in silence.