By Jonathan Copping, Sports Lawyer, Bolt Burdon Law Firm, London, United Kingdom
On 16 November 2016, the English newspaper, ‘The Guardian’, published an article about former professional footballer Andy Woodward’s experience of sexual abuse by a former Crewe Alexandra youth team football coach. Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity in order to speak to ‘The Guardian’ for the publication of his story.
Since then, further ex-footballers have come forward and waived their anonymity to discuss their accounts of the sexual abuse that they suffered at the hands of various individuals involved in football. Woodward’s abuser, Barry Bennell, a former youth coach at Crewe Alexandra FC, was jailed for 9 years in 1998, after admitting 23 charges of sexual offences against six boys aged 9 to 15.
In response to the numerous allegations of sexual abuse in football, mainly occurring during the 1970s and 1980s, the English Football Association (FA), has set up an internal review to look at what information the FA had, at all relevant times, regarding the issues that have been raised; what clubs were aware of; and what action was, or should have been taken. The FA has appointed an independent counsel, Kate Gallefant, QC, to assist with this review.
The FA has set up, along with the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), a specially commissioned 24 hour helpline, for anyone, who was a childhood victim of sexual abuse, to contact.
The internal review by the FA is in addition to ‘Operation Hydrant’, the coordinated hub set up in 2014, for the police to investigate historical child-abuse allegations, concerning individuals of public prominence, or abuse within institutional settings.
On 1 December 2016, ‘Operation Hydrant’ released the following statement:
“Following ongoing and widespread publicity surrounding allegations of child sexual abuse within football, many police forces across the country have received a significant number of calls, both reporting further allegations and offering information.
Current figures, collated from information supplied by forces to Operation Hydrant and including referrals from the NSPCC helpline, suggest a total of around 350 victims have come forward to report child sexual abuse”.
In fact, 14 police forces, including the Metropolitan Police, are currently investigating the many allegations of sexual abuse of young football players that have been made to date.
The leading English club Chelsea is also involved in this scandal and has opened an internal investigation to review the conduct of an individual employed by the club in the 1970s. This follows the publication of details of how former player, Gary Johnson, was abused in the 1970s by a youth team coach at the club. It has been revealed that Chelsea paid Gary Johnson £50,000 in 2015 to keep allegations about the sexual abuse secret. Johnson and Chelsea signed a settlement agreement, including a confidentiality clause; however, Johnson subsequently decided to go public with the abuse and the settlement. In response, Chelsea has stated that the inclusion of the confidentiality clause in the agreement was inappropriate.
The current sexual abuse scandal is one of the biggest issues that football and the FA have had to deal with. Whilst the allegations, if proven, all carry significant criminal charges and sentences, the FA needs to take a robust approach on this issue, especially the safeguarding of young players, and demonstrate its credentials as the governing body of the sport in England.
At present, there are no allegations of any sexual abuse in today’s game. However, the FA needs to leave no stone unturned in its internal review, to make sure that the sexual abuse that has occurred in the past, must never happen again. Not only should the FA review what information it had at all relevant times, but it should also review its procedures at the relevant times, to assess what information it should have had that could have stopped such abuse.
All involved with football will be eagerly anticipating the release, as soon as possible, of the report from the FA, following the completion of its internal review.
This is yet another blot on ‘the beautiful game’ and its image and integrity!