A review of the current inquiries & investigations into abuse in UK football
The recent disclosures of childhood abuse in sports and elsewhere has prompted a number of enquiries and investigations, each with a different remit and timescale for completion. This section summarises the key investigations taking place. Specifically, it looks at:
The Football Association Inquiry
The Scottish Football Association Inquiry
Independent investigations being undertaken by individual clubs
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
What does all this mean for Football?
Potential civil proceedings by victims against clubs and governing bodies
The Football Association Inquiry
Established in 1863, The Football Association (The FA) is the governing body of association football in England and is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the professional and amateur game. All of England’s professional football teams are members of The FA.
In November 2016, a number of former professional footballers waived their right to anonymity to disclose having suffered child sexual abuse at the hands of a number of football coaches1. The allegations spanned the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and focused on former disgraced coach and convicted paedophile, Barry Bennell, who had worked as a coach for both Manchester City and Crewe Alexander Football Clubs2.
After the allegations surfaced, The FA initially set up a helpline in conjunction with the NSPCC and received large numbers of calls from former professional footballers and academy scholars. It subsequently announced the set-up of an in internal inquiry, to be led by independent Counsel, Kate Gallafent3. The purpose of that inquiry was to establish what the two football clubs knew about Barry Bennell at the time of the sexual abuse. There was criticism of the FA’s delayed response and narrow remit of investigation by Conservative MP Damian Collins, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Chairman4. More seriously, it was alleged5 that The FA had previously failed to take seriously concerns about sexual abuse in the game and was in a position to have rooted out childhood sexual abuse many years ago.
Following public criticism6 of The FA’s decision to hold an internal inquiry, plans were announced to widen the scope of the inquiry and a new head was appointed in the form of Clive Sheldon QC. The terms of reference are as follows:
1. To consider the extent to which The FA was aware of any of the issues relating to non-recent child sexual abuse which have been brought to light in the press relating to the 1970’s,1980s and 1990s, and [up until around 2005];
2. To consider what steps The FA took to address safeguarding/child protection issues in the sport up until 2005, and to consider any failings by The FA at the time, in particular whether it failed to act appropriately to anything raised with it relating to child sexual abuse, in relation to any football club (at any level of the game including grass roots clubs) or alleged abuser that may come to light.
3. To consider the steps those clubs (that is any club at any level of the game including grass roots clubs) which are identified as linked to alleged sexual abusers took at the time of any incidents, and are taking to investigate what that club did or did not know and/or did or did not do in relation to child sexual abuse which have been brought to light in the press relating to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and up until around 2005; in the event the Review finds such steps to be lacking the Review will look to extend its scope.
4 To consider what lessons can be learned by The FA and/or the clubs arising out of the investigations that are taking place.7
So far The FA has contacted all 65,000 affiliated clubs and asked it to assist with their enquiries. The first four months of the inquiry involved conducting background research and the investigation is still reportedly focused on reviewing 5,000 boxes of archive material held by The FA and interviews with survivors and key witnesses8. The inquiry is not a criminal investigation but any possible crimes will be referred to Operation Hydrant9 (addressed below).
The scope and scale of The FA’s inquiry which spans allegations over several decades suggests that the final conclusions will not be known for some time. The inquiry was originally anticipated to last 18 months. However, by May 2017, eight unnamed professional clubs were reported to have failed to respond to The FA’s call for evidence10, which has inevitably delayed the timetable. The inquiry is unlikely to reach any final conclusions until after key criminal trials have taken place in the interests of ensuring that the criminal justice process is not prejudiced11. Presently, there is no fixed timetable for the completion of this inquiry.
Scottish Football Association Inquiry
On 13 December 2016, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) has also launched an independent review into allegations of child sexual abuse in Scottish Football concerning former youth coach and referee Hugh Stevenson12. It is alleged13 he was allowed to carry on working in football for several years after being reported to police and the SFA over child sex offences.
Former youth football player Pete Haynes revealed to BBC Scotland that he had been sexually abused by Stevenson between 1979 and 1982. Police Scotland confirmed that Strathclyde Police had investigated Stevenson in 1993 and 1996 but for reasons not explained, he was never brought to trial. Despite the allegations, he was allowed to continue working as a coach. Stevenson died in 2004. The Scottish Football Association has since apologised to Mr Haynes.
Allegations also surfaced around Jim McCafferty, a former youth coach who was the kit man for Celtic, Hibernian and Falkirk. He was arrested in Belfast after allegations were made against him. He reportedly confessed to abusing up to 12 boys in an interview recorded by Scottish tabloid newspaper, The Daily Record14. On 27 September 2017, Belfast Crown Court was informed that McCafferty would plead guilty to at least two of the eight sex charges he faces, but only after being deemed medically fit to do so15.
Fresh allegations have also surfaced around the founder of Celtic Boys’ club, Jim Torbett, who was jailed in 1998 for two years having been found guilty of abusing three former players including former Scotland international Alan Brazil, between 1967-7416. A BBC programme Football Abuse: The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game shown in April 2017 reported that Torbett was allowed to return to the club after being sacked for abuse. In May 2017, Torbett was charged with six sex offences at Glasgow Sheriff Court17.
As with the revelations of abuse in English football, a number of key themes have emerged, namely,
victims found themselves isolated and unable to speak out,
those that did were not taken seriously, and
where allegations were proven, lessons were not learned and insufficient steps were taken to keep young players safe
The Scottish FA’s review is being led by Martin Henry, former executive officer of Lothian and Borders Police's child protection office18. The review is now reported to have concluded its preparatory work and investigators are currently in the information gathering stage19. The SFA aims to publish its report in full in early 2018.
Independent investigations being undertaken by individual clubs
On 16 November 2016, former Crewe Alexander defender Andy Woodward revealed20 that he had been sexually abused as a child by former football coach Barry Bennell in the 1980s. Shortly afterwards, former players Steve Walters, Anthony Hughes and others came forward as victims of Bennell whilst playing for Crewe21.
The club was initially criticised for its lack of response to the allegations as they were made. On 26 November 2016, the club announced22 it would hold an independent review into how it dealt with non-recent child sex abuse allegations. As with the FA, this was to be conducted by external legal Counsel.
One issue to be investigated is whether Crewe’s manager, Dario Gradi, attempted to conceal a youth player’s complaint of sexual assault against Chelsea Chief Scout, Eddie Heath, in 197423. Dario Gradi was suspended by The FA in December 2016, pending the outcome of its investigations.
Since releasing a statement to confirm the set-up of its internal review, Crewe Alexandra has provided little in the way of information to the public. A note to editors which accompanied its November 2016 statement confirmed the club would not be providing interviews or comments and the club therefore appears to be keeping a tight grip on the internal workings of its investigation.
Following the conviction of Barry Bennell in January 2018, there has been mounting pressure on Crewe to explain what was known about Barry Bennell at the time24. On 15 February 2018, the club made a statement dismissing allegations that it had knowledge of the abuse25. Two weeks later, it released a second statement on 2 March 2018 confirming that the club would no longer undertake an independent investigation into the allegations26.
Unlike Crewe, Manchester City Football Club has also opened an inquiry into its association with Barry Bennell in the 1980s. This is reportedly being led by Jane Mulcahy QC27. Initially, there was little publicly available information about the inquiry, current stage of investigations, terms of reference or likely timescales. However, following Barry Bennell’s conviction, the club has revealed more about the work being undertaken.
On 15 February 2018, Manchester City made a statement confirming that it was continuing with its inquiry which was in-depth and covered a period spanning 50 years.28 In that statement, the club also confirmed the remit of its investigation as follows:
1. Understand whether, and if so how, it was used by Barry Bennell to facilitate alleged sexual abuse of children
2. Discover all indications – if any - and associated evidence as to any use of the Club by any other individual at any point from 1965 to the present day to facilitate alleged sexual abuse of children.
3. Review the Club’s current and future safeguarding procedures and protocols against global best practice benchmarks notwithstanding the fact that the Club has been compliant with and operating at the required levels of safeguarding standards since their introduction across English football in the early 2000s
In its statement, Manchester City also confirmed that in addition to investigating allegations around Barry Bennell, it had also identified former scout John Broome (deceased) as a potential perpetrator of abuse.
No timescale has been advanced for the completion of the Manchester City inquiry.
On 29 November 2016, it was reported that Chelsea Football Club has appointed Charles Geekie QC to carry out an investigation connected to allegations of historical sexual abuse in the 1970s29. This is being led by Charles Geekie QC. Former Chelsea player, Gary Johnson, was paid £50,000 in so-called hush money, to keep quiet about allegations he made about former chief scout, Eddie Heath30.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA)
The issue of childhood abuse in football is sadly one component of a much larger picture of abuse endemic in national institutions including the BBC, the NHS, children’s homes and schools. In recent years, these allegations have focused on prominent public figures in the media and politics. At the same time, there has been criticism of the Police and Crown Prosecution Service around the failure to investigate and bring to justice, those perpetrators.
The level of public concern32 about these failings at an institutional level led to the set-up of the Independent Inquiry, a statutory inquiry set up by the Inquiries Act 2005 with powers to require witnesses to give evidence. The decision to hold the inquiry was announced on 7 July 2014.
To consider the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; to consider the steps which it is necessary for State and non-State institutions to take in order to protect children from such abuse in future; and to publish a report with recommendations.
The Inquiry has launched 13 separate investigations into a number of local authorities and religious institutions although football clubs do not appear on its list. The Inquiry is set to run until at least 2020, although it hopes to make recommendations in an interim report by 2018.
Led by Professor Alexis Jay OBE, the Chair of the Independent Inquiry is the third to take the position, following controversies of previous appointees, being Baroness Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf, both of whom stood down due to objections related to perceived closeness to the institutions under scrutiny34.
Insofar as the issue of football abuse is concerned, Lady Jay intends to review the findings of The FA’s Inquiry and decide what action, if any, is required. She has said however,
“As recent allegations relating to professional football clubs show, no institution or aspect of institutional life should be beyond our reach .35 ”
Quite what IICSA’s response to the allegations of abuse in football will be remains to be seen.
Operation Hydrant was set up by the Police in June 2014, “to deliver the national policing response, oversight, and coordination of non-recent child abuse investigations concerning persons of public prominence, or in relation to those offences which took place historically within institutional settings”36
It is headed by Simon Bailey, the Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary. The operation was set up in response to significant numbers of complaints of non-recent child sexual abuse involving a number of high profile people. There was concern that individual forces were investigating the same institutions and individuals and Operation Hydrant was set up to help co-ordinate investigations and share information with the objective of improving intelligence sharing and avoiding duplication of work.
Operation Hydrant is not investigating allegations which is left to individual forces. It also acts as the interface between the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and all police forces in the UK.
As at 28 September 2017, 359 suspects were classified as persons of public prominence, 25 of whom are connected to the world of sport. Out of 2366 institutions on the Operation Hydrant database, 278 are related to sport38.
In relation to football, Operation Hydrant’s statistics reveal that there are 784 indicative victims and 285 suspects have been identified with 331 football clubs impacted39. 96% of those identified as victims are male.
A number of other sports are also implicated including 27 sports outside football and include basketball, rugby, gymnastics, martial arts, tennis, wrestling, golf, sailing, athletics, cricket, and swimming.
Operation Hydrant is “the interface between the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and all police forces in the UK40”. It is therefore anticipated that Hydrant will continue to operate until at least the conclusion of the Independent Inquiry. However, there is no recorded timescale for the conclusion of this operation.
Criminal proceedings are currently underway in relation to the following former football personnel:
Barry Bennell – Worked as a coach for at least 4 professional clubs including Manchester City, Crewe Alexander, Stoke City and Leeds United. In 1994, Bennell was arrested by Police in the USA whilst on tour with Staffordshire team, Stone Dominoes. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a 13-year-old player. Upon his release from prison, Bennell returned to the UK where he was arrested on arrival in order to face further charges of child abuse. Bennell pleaded not guilty but was ultimately convicted in 1998 of numerous offences including buggery and was given a nine-year prison sentence. In May 2015, Bennell was served with a two-year prison sentence for abusing another former youth player. On 29 November 2016, Bennell was charged41 with fresh counts of sexual assault against a boy under 14 and in March, May and June 2017, Bennell was charged with further offences to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Following a five week trial commencing in January 2018, Bennell was found guilty of 43 sexual abuse charges, having pleaded guilty at the start of the trial to 7 offences relating to 3 boys aged between 11 and 14. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering whether to pursue Bennell in a further round of trials on behalf of those complainants whose evidence was not heard at the first trial.
George Ormond – former Newcastle United youth coach has been charged with a number of offences concerning 17 make complainants42. He denies the allegations and has been released on bail and is due to reappear in Court in May 2018.
Eddie Heath – Former Chelsea Chief Scout is alleged to have abused a number of youth players43. On 29 November 2016, Chelsea announced it was investigating allegations of abuse going back to the 1970s and, in particular, former player Gary Johnson, claimed he was paid £50,000 by the club to keep quiet about allegations he had been sexually abused by Heath. Heath died of a heart attack in the 1980s.
Bob Higgins – On 5 July 2017, former Southampton Football Coach, Higgins, was charged with 65 counts of indecent assault relating to abuse perpetrated in the 1980s and 1990s. He denies the charges and is due to stand trial at Salisbury Crown Court on 29 May 2018.
What does all this mean for Football?
Civil proceedings by victims against clubs and governing bodies
A number of survivors of football abuse have now come forward to lodge claims for damages against football clubs and connected organisations. With so many different layers of inquiries and investigations ongoing, it is not surprising that Defendants and their insurers wish to see the outcomes of those investigations before considering those claims. The basis of civil claims fall broadly into two categories;
Vicarious Liability. This is where the organisation that employed or had control over the perpetrator in question, are directly liable under the civil law for the actions of the offender. The outcome of anticipated criminal trials will be highly relevant in these types of claims. Where the alleged perpetrator is dead and therefore no convictions will be forthcoming, the outcome of the Independent Inquiry and related investigations will clearly be relevant to such claims. A detailed analysis of vicarious liability in this context can be found here: Who shoulders the blame? An analysis of vicarious liability in the sports industry.44
Negligence and/or breach of statutory duty. A number of allegations suggest that football clubs deliberately covered up or turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse or failed to implement safeguarding policies to protect young players. The Independent Inquiry and related investigations will assist in making findings of fact which help to determine issues of liability. A detailed analysis of the legal remedies for victims of child abuse is available here: The legal remedies for victims of child abuse in English football.45
Given that allegations span as far back at the 1970s, a defence likely to be raised by Defendants is that of limitation. Whilst the Court is able to exercise discretion under Section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980, a key consideration for the Courts in a civil claim is whether a fair trial is still possible. For claimants, the outcome of the criminal proceedings and wider inquiries which have the ability to make findings of fact in spite of the passage of time, will be key to overcoming arguments on limitation. For those seeking justice, it is therefore imperative that those conducting investigations and inquiries have sufficient evidence before them to determine the extent and scale of abuse in football together with details of what football clubs and connected individuals knew at the time and what actions were taken in response.
Given recent developments and the far-reaching affects which are now coming to light, attention has been drawn to child safety in sports in the UK and has promoted much discussion around how sports clubs should respond to avoid history being repeated.
In particular, theme 5 of her report deals in detail with safeguarding issues and her recommendations highlight the changes that need to be addressed by the government in order to safeguard athletes going forward.
She has stressed that it should be recognised that sporting clubs, as they work with children and vulnerable adults, can attract individuals who will seek to exploit them and abuse them and therefore there is a need for continual vigilance. The report recommends that the government should consider extending a Duty to Report to all sports organisations, so that if a person knows or has a suspicion of any abuse taking place, they must report it to the relevant body.
This has been discussed in detail in the LawInSport article: Best practice for handling child abuse investigations in sport.47 The article highlights that steps should firstly be taken to ensure that sporting clubs are as safe as an environment as possible for children. Safeguarding policies should be reviewed and updated where necessary, and coaches that are recruited into these positions of trust should be subject to DBS checks.
This ties in with Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomas’s recommendation for a national coach licensing scheme to be considered, with the creation of a register of licensed coaches. It is especially relevant to parent’s who are employing private coaches independently of sports clubs.
The report also proposes the implementation of reporting mechanisms for athletes, which should be communicated openly to all members of the club so the process is easily accessible. Training should also be provided to members of staff so that correct procedures are followed when faced with allegations. The focus has to be on allegations being dealt with promptly and sensitively.
The NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) provides an alternative reporting mechanism. The CPSU was set up in 2001 to help sports organisations and governing bodies to minimise the risk of child abuse during sporting activities, following a series of high profile cases of abuse of young athletes by coaches.48
It has been recommended by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson that the CPSU should be provided with the appropriate resources to work with sports to provide clear guidance on safeguarding processes and responsibilities to make them more impactful. In addition, their role should be highlighted to the wider public so that it is utilised to its full potential.
Over the following months and years, as the results of the inquiries, investigations and reports are published, it is clear to see that there will be changes implemented in the way sports clubs are run in the UK, with strength and weight added in order to protect vulnerable children and adults as far as possible.
Comment: the need for deep cultural changes
The seriousness and scale of abuse that has come to light in recent times has forced the sporting industry to admit some disturbing truths. The FA and clubs have promised that lessons will be learned. The hard work will come in ensuring that this promise is translated into a deliverable and meaningful child abuse prevention strategy in football and elsewhere.
The fear is that there has not yet been the sort of cultural change needed to fully implement a child abuse prevention strategy which needs young players to speak out and trust that they will be respected and believed. This is still a sport struggling to combat racist49, homophobic and misogynistic50 behaviour from a powerful minority of fans, some players and clubs. It is noteworthy that there is not one openly gay footballer in the premier league51. There can be only limited cause for optimism in a game where even the most senior and successful players believe they have no option but to keep secrets and where old-fashioned notions of masculinity continue to be perpetuated through ‘banter’ in the locker rooms and abuse from the terraces.
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- Tags: Duty of Care in Sport Report | Football | Inquires Act 2005 | Limitation Act 1989 | Ombudsman | Operation Hydrant | Scottish Football Association (SFA) | Sport England | The Football Association (FA) | The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (ICSA) | UK Sport | United Kingdom (UK) | Vicarious Liability
- Best practice for handling child abuse investigations in sport
- Duty of Care in Sport: Making the case for a Sports Ombudsman in the UK
- Top 10 tips for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults in sports
- How the USOC’s SafeSport policies are tackling athlete abuse and harassment
- The legal remedies for victims of child abuse in English football
- Who shoulders the blame? An analysis of vicarious liability in the sports industry
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Neerali is a solicitor in the medical negligence and abuse law team at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office. She acts on behalf of a number of survivors of abuse to bring civil claims against individual perpetrators and organisations including local authorities and the NHS.