London (AFP) – The Football Association was guilty of inexcusable “institutional failings” in delaying the implementation of child safeguarding measures between 1995 and 2000, an independent review of historical sexual abuse has found.
The review, published on Wednesday, said high-profile convictions — including one for serial abuser Barry Bennell in the United States in 1995 — should have served as the catalyst for change, but it took another five years for the FA to put adequate processes in place.
“The FA acted far too slowly to introduce appropriate and sufficient child protection measures, and to ensure that safeguarding was taken sufficiently seriously by those involved in the game,” the report said.
“These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period, the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”
There were failings even after 2000, the report said. It cited the fact that no measures were put in place to stop Bennell, who had worked as a youth coach affiliated to Manchester City, Crewe and Stoke, from returning to football after his release from prison in 2003.
Bennell was sentenced to 31 years in prison in 2018 for 50 counts of child abuse against 12 boys aged eight to 15 between 1979 and 1991.
Judge Clement Goldstone described Bennell as “the devil incarnate”. He was sentenced to a further four years last year.
The FA was also criticised for failing to look again at allegations against Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins when the standard of proof in disciplinary cases was lowered in 2003.
Higgins was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2019 after being found guilty of 46 counts of indecent assault against 24 people between 1971 and 1996.
The review, led by barrister Clive Sheldon, also looked at how the FA and individuals at clubs with links to suspected or convicted abusers dealt with reports of abuse.
It stated that, in some cases, “clubs acted too slowly, or inappropriately” in response to such reports.
In all, the review said that data passed to it in August 2020 had identified 240 suspects and 692 survivors.
Sheldon believes the actual number who were abused but had not come forward to report it was far higher, but concluded that abuse was “not commonplace” and that the “overwhelming majority” of children were able to engage with football safely.
– Safeguarding –
The review makes 13 recommendations for the FA to improve safeguarding including having a board member as safeguarding champion and the employment of safeguarding officers at all 92 professional clubs in England.
“Understanding and acknowledging the appalling abuse suffered by young players in the period covered by the review is important for its own sake,” said Sheldon.
“Survivors deserve to be listened to, and their suffering deserves to be properly recognised.
“As well as recognising and facing up to what happened in the past, it is also important that this terrible history is not repeated, and that everything possible is done now to safeguard the current and future generations of young players.”
The Offside Trust, founded and run by survivors of sexual abuse in sport, criticised the findings of the report, calling them “blindingly obvious”.
“We are deeply disappointed that an opportunity to create a world-class standard of child protection and safeguarding in sport has been missed,” it said.
League One Peterborough issued a short statement in which they said they were “extremely sorry” to anyone affected by the club’s part in the abuse scandal.
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