An independent review commissioned by the Football Association (“FA”), the governing body for football in England, into abuse of children between 1970 and 2005 published its findings on 17 March 2021.
The four-year review included evidence from interviews with 62 survivors and 157 further individuals. The report said there were at least 240 suspects and 692 survivors of sexual abuse within football, with the possibility that the real figure is higher considering many incidents of abuse are not reported.
How the scandal unfolded
On 16 November 2016, former Crewe player Andy Woodward waived his anonymity in an interview with the Guardian newspaper and revealed he had been sexually abused as a child by his former football coach, Barry Bennell. He was the first player to discuss these events publicly and later in the year, others came forward. This led to investigations in November 2016 by police forces, including Cheshire, Northumbria, Metropolitan and Greater Manchester. Several clubs (including Crewe Alexandra where Andy Woodward played) also launched independent reviews into historic abuse claims.
The FA announced an independent inquiry in December 2016 into non-recent child sex abuse by coaches and scouts within youth football, led by barrister Clive Sheldon QC (“the Sheldon Review”). The Scottish Football Association also announced a review of their own.
On 10 April 2017, fresh allegations of child abuse emerged against the founder of Celtic Boys’ Club, Jim Torbett, who was later jailed for six years after being convicted of sexually abusing three boys over an eight-year period. The following year, on 19 February, Barry Bennell was jailed for 31 years for 50 counts of child sexual abuse. Later in 2018 and in 2019, youth coaches George Ormond, Jim McCafferty (a coach and kit man for the Celtic youth team) and Bob Higgins (ex-coach at Southampton FC and Peterborough United) were given sentences following convictions for sexual abuse and assault of children.
On 17 March 2021, the Sheldon Review published its findings report which found that the FA did not “do enough to keep children safe,” and that there were “significant institutional failings”.
Findings of the Sheldon Review
While the report spoke of these failings, it also stated there was no evidence the FA knew of any child abuse issues before the summer of 1995.
However, the Sheldon Review did find that the FA “could and should have done more to keep children safe,” following the high-profile convictions of child sexual abusers from the summer of 1995 until May 2000. According to the report, “child protection was not regarded as an urgent priority,” and even after May 2000, when the FA launched a comprehensive child protection policy and programme, “mistakes were still made” by the FA.
More specifically, the report said:
Barry Bennell and Bob Higgins, two of the most notorious perpetrators of child sexual abuse in football, were not banned by the FA from involvement in football, the Sheldon Review reported. Clive Sheldon QC said that while some of the perpetrators knew each other, he did not “consider that perpetrators shared boys with one another for sexual purposes, or shared information with one another that would have facilitated child sexual abuse.”
The report further states that there was a significant level of unfamiliarity with child protection by appropriate officials at football clubs. It adds that where incidents of abuse were reported to people in authority at football clubs, their responses were “rarely competent or appropriate”. However, it should be noted the report also said abuse within football was “not commonplace” and the overwhelming majority of young players were able to engage in the sport safely.
Regarding individual football clubs, the report found that for much of the period covered, staff and officials were unaware of child protection issues, not trained in such issues, and did not identify or respond to signs of potential abuse.
The Sheldon Review has made 13 safeguarding recommendations, with Clive Sheldon QC commenting:
Among the recommendations is the introduction of safeguarding training at several levels in football, including all players, the FA Board and senior management. The introduction of safeguarding officers employed by all Premier League and English Football League clubs was also recommended.
Reactions to the report
Julian Knight MP (the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee) said, “the failure of the FA to keep children safe is truly shocking.”
Former Manchester City junior player Gary Cliffe who is a survivor of Bennell’s abuse shared his feelings about the publication of the report, saying that “it matters so much because it’s impacted on my life and numerous other people’s lives,” adding that “we are hoping and looking for answers and culpability within that report.” He also expressed disappointment with the suggestions in the report that suspicions of abuse were not acted upon.
A youth player who was abused and raped by Barry Bennell over a four-year period, Ian Ackley, said that it would be “naïve” to think after the report that abuse had been eradicated.
The FA has responded to the report with a statement by Mark Bullingham, the chief executive of the FA, who offered “a heartfelt apology” to the survivors. He committed “to doing everything possible to ensure the culture of the modern game has safeguarding at its core. We can still improve and will strive to do so. To be clear, we accept Clive Sheldon’s recommendations in full.”
Mark Bullingham added that the report recognised that “sport governing bodies have limited jurisdiction in certain areas, which should be discussed with Government and other sports bodies” with which he said the FA agreed and pledged to work with the appropriate authorities and organisations to ensure that “together we offer the safest possible environment across all of sport.”