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Football sexual abuse report: ignorance and naivety cleared way for scandal | Football

Generations of young people suffered horrific sexual abuse at many of England’s professional and amateur football clubs due to a wholesale absence of child protection policies, ignorance and naivety, an inquiry for the Football Association has concluded.

Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the inquiry identified failures to act adequately on complaints or rumours 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 the prolific abuser Barry Bennell was a youth coach. Sheldon found that in general, football and the young people who played the sport were left vulnerable to abuse by an absence of a safeguarding culture, that victims were bullied, scared or manipulated into silence, and very few specific reports of abuse were made within clubs, or to the FA.

Sheldon found the FA culpable of “institutional failure” at its delay in introducing safeguarding after 1995, when Bennell and some high-profile abusers in other sports had already been prosecuted and convicted. Bennell had first been convicted in 1994 in the US.

“The FA acted far too slowly to introduce appropriate … child protection measures [from 1995]. These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period, the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”

Before that, Sheldon said in his 700-page report, the FA did “nothing proactive to address safeguarding and protect children from child sexual abuse in the sport”. There was no guidance, training or general awareness of child protection issues from 1970 to the mid-1990s, and people working in football “did not pick up on the signs of potential abuse”.

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However Sheldon absolved the FA from criticism for those decades in which the sport had no child protection in place for its young players, placing that in the context of general attitudes at the time.

“I do not consider that the FA’s inaction during this period is blameworthy. For most of this period, child abuse was generally seen as something which occurred within the family setting or in residential environments, and not within the world of sport.”

The Football Association crest seen on an England shirt.
The Football Association crest seen on an England shirt. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Sheldon added, however, that where incidents of abuse were reported at clubs, “their responses were rarely competent or appropriate”, and where there were “warning signs”, such as rumours of inappropriate behaviour, staff often missed them or took no action.

“This was usually out of ignorance or naivety. There was often a feeling that without ‘concrete evidence’ or a specific allegation from a child, nothing could, or should, be done, and so there was a reluctance to investigate or monitor, let alone confront the perpetrator and interfere with his actions . As a result, in many cases, perpetrators were able to hide within football, and use their positions, to ruin the lives of many children.”

During two spells at Crewe, Bennell seriously sexually abused young players, including Andy Woodward, whose 2016 interview with the Guardian prompted hundreds more victims to come forward, police investigations and convictions, and the FA to set up the Sheldon inquiry. Considering disputed accounts of what senior people at the club knew of Bennell, Sheldon concluded that they did not receive any specific reports of abuse, a conclusion also reached by Cheshire constabulary. However, Sheldon said that he did believe that concerns about inappropriate behaviour, including boys staying at Bennell’s house, had been discussed by the then chairman Norman Rowlinson, director John Bowler who succeeded Rowlinson as chairman, and another director, Hamilton Smith.

“I am also satisfied that, during Bennell’s time at the Club, there were rumours circulating about [Bennell] and his sexual interest in children which were heard by some of the Club’s staff, including Dario Gradi.”

Sheldon said the club “should have done more to check on the well-being of the boys”, and monitored Bennell’s activities.

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Similar criticism was levelled at Manchester City, where Bennell was associated as a coach in the early 1980s, and Stoke City, where he went after he left Crewe in the early 1990s.

Barry Bennell: unmasking of football paedophile who ruined young lives – video explainer
Barry Bennell: unmasking of football paedophile who ruined young lives – video explainer

Chelsea were found to have given no protection to a young player who reported abuse by the youth coach Eddie Heath in 1975. Sheldon said he could not decide whether Gradi, who was then the assistant manager at Chelsea, informed the club’s acting manager, Ron Suart, of concerns raised at a meeting with the player’s father. Either way, Gradi’s 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 was terminated in July 1989,” the report said.

Newcastle delayed acting on reports of abuse by 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 rumours about the behaviour of their youth coach Bob Higgins, Sheldon found, but failed to take steps to monitor him. “Had Higgins been properly monitored this might have prevented some of his abuse of young players.”

Sheldon also highlighted the lack of criminal background checks on adults working with young children. Frank Roper had criminal convictions in 1960, 1961 and 1965 but was still heavily involved in youth coaching, attached to Blackpool FC, and serially abused young players including Paul Stewart, one of the victims who has spoken out about the abuse.

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