In the wake of what has been classified as the Football Association’s (“FA”) biggest crises to date, police have been flooded with reports from further victims coming forward to report abuse. Investigations have begun into allegations against football coaches for historic child sex abuse against footballers in youth teams dating back to the 1980s.
In mid-November, former footballer, Andy Woodward, came forward to report the sexual abuse he faced as a young player. Following this over 20 former footballers including Steve Walters, David White, and Paul Stewart elected to waive their right to anonymity in order to report harrowing accounts of the sexual abuse they suffered in their youth. To date, it is reported that police have now received over 250 calls regarding historic child abuse at the hands of prominent FA personalities. This has now spiralled into a national investigation and, depending upon the findings, could have grave consequences throughout the sporting world.
At the heart of the child sex scandal is Barry Bennell, a respected youth coach during the 1980s and 1990s, convicted for sex offences against children in 1994. He then pleaded guilty to 23 specimen charges and was jailed for those offences in 1998, and jailed once again in May 2015 for sexual offences against a 12-year old boy in 1980. Bennell is now facing further claims of child sex abuse which, if made out against him, will inevitably result in a significant custodial sentence.
The reports have led to the launch of a criminal investigation by 20 police forces, including the Metropolitan Police, and an internal investigation into the FA itself. The concurrent investigations will pertain not just to the individuals alleged to have sexually abused young players, but more importantly, into the systemic failure of football clubs to prevent abuse from occurring. Reports have surfaced claiming that key personnel at clubs such as Crewe Alexander FC, Chelsea FC and Manchester City may have known about the alleged abuse, and paid young players vast sums of money in exchange for their silence regarding their abuse.
The key focus of the FA’s internal review will be to ascertain exactly what the FA and individual clubs knew at the relevant time of the alleged abuse, and what action was or should have been taken. It is likely that the findings of this review will lead to an overhaul of current child protection policies that are implemented not just at football clubs, but at sports facilities across the board.
In the UK, sports clubs are currently under no obligation to report allegations of sexual abuse to the police for further investigation. The government, in the summer of this year, launched a consultation on making it mandatory for sports clubs to report claims of abuse to the police. It is possible that the FA’s findings will lend support to the notion of mandatory reporting, as well as increasing the obligations on sports bodies to enforce child protection policies throughout their national clubs.
As well as the inevitable criminal penalties that individuals will face if found guilty of historic sex abuse against young footballers, football clubs should brace themselves for an onslaught of compensation claims from victims who claim to have been “paid-off” to maintain a silence about their alleged abuse.
FA chairman Greg Clarke has stated that “football was asleep to the issue of child sex abuse in 1990s”. Results of any investigations are likely to involve significant recommendations as to how to enhance the safeguarding of children across the sporting world. The focus will be to close any loopholes that currently exist and to act pro-actively, preventing the re-occurrence of a scandal of this nature in the future.