Best practice for handling child abuse investigations in sport

Published 06 January 2017 By: Richard Spafford, Carolyn Pepper, Casey Ryan

Children playing football on grass

Over the last few years, we have seen some of the UK’s most iconic and well-known institutions and individuals being faced with allegations of historical sex abuse of young people. Particular attention is now focussed upon the world of football, which is currently facing a tidal wave of sex abuse allegations made by former football players.[1] Numerous police forces are reported to have begun investigations as a result of hundreds of people coming forward to report sex abuse in connection with football in the UK.[2] 

Allegations of historical sex abuse against an athletics coach who was convicted of indecent assault have re-emerged in the wake of the football scandal and experience tells us that the allegations are not likely to stop with athletics and football. After the Jimmy Savile scandal broke in the UK, allegations swiftly followed about other UK household names such as Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris. We know that sports outside the UK have also faced allegations of child sex abuse in the recent past – the Penn State football scandal and USA Gymnastics issues are just two examples. It would be no surprise if similar allegations were now to surface in respect of other sports, both in the UK and in other countries.

It this context, this article examines:

  • Why is this happening in sport and why now?

  • Recognition of sex abuse in the UK

  • Planning for possible child sex abuse allegations

  • What to do if an allegation is made

  • The investigation

  • Authors’ comment


Why is this happening in sport and why now?

The simple answer to the first question is that sex abuse generally takes place where there is the perfect storm of trust or admiration for the perpetrator and the opportunity to abuse. Whilst almost all of those involved in coaching sport do so out of the best possible motives of altruism and love of their sport, if proper protection guidelines[3] are not strictly followed, sport can provide an environment for those who wish to abuse to do so. 

Sports coaches are understandably trusted by parents and admired and looked up to by young people. Young people with the potential to become elite athletes often spend long periods of time with their coaches, sometimes away from home. It is not hard to see how opportunities for abuse will occur in those circumstances, and, rare as this will be, will be taken and not be picked up.

The fact that the NSPCC (UK) operates a specific Child Protection in Sport Unit[4] (CPSU) and that the United States Olympic Committee has established a SafeSport initiative[5] tell us that sport is seen as a key risk area for the abuse of young people. Of course, the opportunities will have been greater in the past when the dangers and prevalence of sex abuse were less well documented and protection guidelines less stringent, if they existed at all.

But why is this happening now? Why are UK sporting bodies and clubs being faced with historical sex abuse allegations so long after the events took place? To answer that question, we must look to the history of the development of the recognition of sex abuse of young people in the UK.


Recognition of sex abuse in the UK 

Although the law has long recognised that young people require protection from potential sexual abuse, and legislation has been in place for a long time to enable the prosecutions of offenders to take place[6], it is not until relatively recently that the prevalence of sex abuse has begun to be widely recognised in the UK and even more recently that those who have suffered sexual abuse have felt able to speak about their experiences.

There were a number of key developments in the 1980s and 1990s which began the process of recognition that sex abuse of young people may be more prevalent than had been previously thought. One of those pivotal developments was the 1987 Cleveland Inquiry conducted by Baroness Butler-Sloss[7], which looked at allegations of sexual abuse in Cleveland (UK) and the medical evidence of sex abuse. Although many of the children who had been removed from their homes during the Cleveland scandal were returned to their parents the Inquiry and the events surrounding it nevertheless brought the subject of abuse into sharp focus.

ChildLine, the confidential helpline for children suffering abuse was launched in 1986 following the broadcast of Esther Rantzen’s ChildWatch programme shown on the BBC. This was also a key development as it brought the issue of abuse to society’s attention and provided young people with an opportunity to speak about what was happening to them.

A few years later, in 1992, following allegations of sex abuse in Orkney[8] in Scotland, the Orkney Inquiry reported on the protection procedures in place in Orkney, and found the procedures to be lacking in a number of crucial respects. This shone additional light on the issue.

Over the last 20 years, the number of sex abuse issues that the Catholic Church has had to face has been another major factor in bringing sex abuse of young people out of the shadows.

In more recent years, perhaps the development which most shocked and dramatically and suddenly raised awareness of the vulnerability of young people was the uncovering of appalling serial sexual abuse by someone who had been known as the UK’s "favourite uncle", Jimmy Savile. Survivors of abuse emerged in their hundreds and the country looked on horrified.

The BBC commissioned an investigation into the activities of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall chaired by Dame Janet Smith. The Dame Janet Smith Review both uncovered what had happened and crucially extracted lessons for the future. The authors’ firm provided advice to, and ran, three investigations into Savile and Stuart Hall and their activities at the BBC, as well as advising on the inquiry in the US into the Penn State football scandal. 

What does our experience suggest that sporting bodies and clubs should be doing to prepare themselves for the possibility that allegations of sexual abuse involving them do arise?


Planning for possible child sex abuse allegations 

Review Policies

The first step that should be taken is to ensure that there is a child safeguarding policy in place and if there is, that it is reviewed to make sure it is up to date, effective and is being properly enforced. The CPSU provides useful guidance on drafting a child safeguarding policy[9]. For a club, reviews can be carried out internally (the CPSU again provides a useful self-assessment tool[10]) or an independent protection expert can be instructed to carry out that process so that the club has independent verification that its policies are fit for purpose and are being followed.

Training & Checks

Next, a club should ensure that staff and volunteers are all properly trained in the protection of young people (see the CPSU’s helpful guidance[11]), have been subject to the correct checks (e.g. DBS checks in the UK - formally known as CRB checks) and that they know precisely what to do should they become aware of any allegations. Effective training is a must.

Ensure Reporting Mechanisms are in Place

Finally, it is wise to take the time to put an outline plan in place and to ensure that senior staff such as the Board members of a club are briefed on it so that, if the worst does happen, time is not lost while a plan is written and any issue can be addressed without delay.


What if an allegation is made? 

A club’s immediate reaction to an allegation is extremely important. From both a reputational and a legal standpoint, the first things said and done can frame the entire process as it moves forward. 

It is obvious that, if an allegation is made, it needs to be addressed immediately. There is limited time to take stock and decide what to do; decisive, informed and very prompt action is required. 

There are three very immediate considerations which sporting bodies and clubs who are faced with an accusation will need to deal with.

  • Meet individuals and provide support- It is important to send an appropriate club representative to meet with any individuals making allegations to ensure that the necessary support is put in place for those who have stepped forward. It takes enormous courage to speak up and this is often done at great personal risk and cost. Properly addressing allegations and taking the interests of those who come forward into account are very high priorities. 
  • Contact law enforcement - It is also important to make contact with the police. Sometimes, there is reluctance to do this for fear of losing control over a difficult situation, but, as soon as it becomes clear that a credible allegation has been made, the police must be involved. Not only will the police know what needs to be done from the criminal standpoint, but their input is necessary. Clubs need to ensure that they are quickly working with the police so that criminal investigations can take priority and any necessary evidence can be identified and preserved. 
  • Dealing with the subject of the allegations - A club also needs to know what to say to the individual against whom the allegations have been made. The general rule (although this should always be discussed with the police first) is to tell the individual coach, staff member or volunteer that an allegation has been made. What follows will depend upon the circumstances, but normally the individual will be suspended until the allegations have been addressed. That does not mean that allegations are accepted without more. Individuals against whom allegations are made are not automatically guilty. But once credible allegations have been made, suspension and prompt investigation are usually the most appropriate course of action.


The Investigation

All complaints should be investigated. The nature, and extent, of that investigation will depend upon a number of issues, including the extent of the alleged behaviour, the number of young people affected, the number of coaches, employees or volunteers against whom allegations have been made and the time span covered. But an investigation is always a good idea: not only does it enable facts to be uncovered (bearing in mind that not all allegations are ultimately accepted) but it also provides an opportunity for survivors to be listened to and, crucially, for lessons to be learned. 

Based on the authors’ experience, the main practical questions for an investigation are as follows:

  • Decide first what the investigation is to do. The best way of doing this is to write the terms of its remit. Those terms then frame the process. They become the basis for the investigation and become its structure and form its limits. Too many investigations of this type lack structure and, as a consequence, become unwieldy and are delayed. That needs to be avoided.
  • Identify who is going to lead the investigation. Some investigations are best led by lawyers, particularly where allegations relating to children or of serious sexual assaults have been made. Others can be run by a non-executive employee or an industry figure with legal support (perhaps a trusted senior figure in the sport such as a former chair or senior member of a sports governing body provided there are no - although potential conflicts of interest). We have seen all these approaches - the Dame Janet Smith Review was a judge-led investigation and Helena Morrissey’s inquiry into the culture and processes of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK is an example of a non-lawyer led inquiry - and they can all work very well. Choosing the right leader is key. He or she should have input into the remit, should have an understanding of the relevant sport where possible and should be somebody who has sufficient experience to conduct the investigation and who will be trusted by all. The widely publicised difficulties of the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse show how important it is to involve the right leader from the moment an investigation starts. We cannot know why that particular Inquiry has been beset by so many problems, but the resignation of so many Chairs has inevitably affected confidence in it. 
  • Consult those who have come forward with evidence. Make sure that they feel supported and buy into the process. This is not only the right thing to do, but without the support of any survivors, the effectiveness of any investigation will be severely compromised.
  • Establish the practices and procedures of the investigation and ensure that they are communicated openly to all who need to be aware of them – be that survivors or any other witnesses or those who are active in the sport more generally. It is surprising how many practical issues take on great importance. For example, is information to be provided to the investigation in writing? Will the investigation meet with witnesses personally? Will questions be provided in advance? Will witnesses and survivors be able to bring lawyers and/or supporters when they meet with the investigation? Having answers prepared for these questions not only ensures a smooth process, but increases the confidence in the investigation.
  • Very importantly, fix a budget. There is sometimes a great concern that investigations of this nature can spiral out of control with very high costs. However, costs can be controlled. Budgets for outside advisers can be fixed. With any properly run investigation, there will be cost, and it is worth spending money to ensure that an investigation is appropriately run. Addressing costs early means that costs are never allowed to get in the way of the proper process. 



At the end of the process, there will probably be a report. This will address the questions set out in the terms at the start. This is very likely to be a document which is not confidential. However, the benefits of due process, addressing the questions raised and showing the world that allegations are taken seriously and that the interests of survivors are being addressed will be of huge benefit to the club, the sport and young people to whom all in society have a duty of care.

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Richard Spafford

Richard Spafford

Richard is a partner at Reed Smith in London and was the lead lawyer on The Dame Janet Smith Review.

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Carolyn Pepper

Carolyn Pepper

Carolyn is a partner at Reed Smith in London and specialises in sensitive investigation work, media and intellectual property law.

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