In the wake of news that two top footballers were sexually abused by their coach when they were teenagers, Jonathan Wheeler writes that sports coaching is the perfect cover for child abusers.
Earlier this year we learned that the fame and celebrity which comes with playing professional football for a premier league club could be used to abuse: I cite Adam Johnson’s spectacular fall from grace as he was found guilty of having sex with a 15 year old. It was alleged that he deliberately strung out his prosecution by pleading not guilty to maximise his earnings from his £60,000 a week job at Sunderland AFC.
The allegations made in the case of Blackstock v Stoke City Football Club last year concerning sexualised bullying of young apprentices by older players also made uncomfortable reading for the footballing fraternity: whilst the judge did not find those allegations proved in that case he made the point that he was not saying that the assaults had never occurred and didn’t feel he had got to the bottom of the issues.
In the States too, Jerry Sandusky, American Football coach at Penn State University was convicted in 2012 of abusing ten young men between 1994 and 2008. That case at the time was a stab through the heart of all that was thought to be wholesome and good in America, whose varsity sports programme was thought to be unassailable, and its luminaries like Sandusky untouchable. Sandusky’s appeal against his conviction is being heard as I write, by Judge John Cleland at the Bellefonte Court House in Pennsylvania.
Barry Bennell – highly-esteemed coach, prolific paedophile
Now, revelations are publically emerging of a prolific paedophile at the very centre of youth football in this country. The Guardian’s coverage of the disclosures by Andy Woodward and Steve Walters, talking of their abuse at the hands of Barry Bennell is believed to be ‘the tip of an iceberg’ with Bennell estimated to have abused hundreds of boys. At one time he was the top youth coach and talent scout in the country. Any young man who had hopes of playing football professionally would have jumped at the chance of being taken on by him. Bennell was a ‘king maker’, and he held these boys’ dreams in his hands. And that is exactly how he managed to abuse so many. In 1994, he served a four year prison sentence in Florida after he admitted to the buggery and indecent assault of a boy he was accompanying on a football tour. The American court described Bennell as having “an almost insatiable appetite” for young boys. He then served nine years in this country for 23 specimen offences against six boys aged 9 to 15. One of those boys was Andy Woodward. Bennell was most recently sentenced to two years in May 2015 for sexually assaulting a 12 year old on a football course in Macclesfield. Woodward and Walters going public is likely to galvanise others who were similarly abused to complain to the police. In the meantime Bennell is currently out of prison on licence.
Crewe Alexandra – did they fail children under their care?
Bennell’s club, Crewe Alexandra, have a case to answer too. It was apparently common knowledge that boys stayed at Bennell’s house. Some say it was the worst kept secret in professional football that Bennell was sexually interested in his charges, and used his position to lure them with threats and kindnesses in equal measure – classic grooming techniques. Locker room talk could be uncomfortable for those footballers who had been trained by him. And like most male sports, a macho culture prevailed in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These boys who had been sexually abused were questioning their sexuality, and petrified that someone would find out. If so, they felt their careers and their dreams would be ruined. The club did not take any steps to address Bennell’s behaviour or protect the boys who he was targeting. There are clearly failings on Crewe Alexandra’s part in respect of the duty of care they owed to these children.
As lawyers specialising in representing victims and survivors in claims for compensation, claims against sports clubs and sports coaches are on the rise. Coaching young people – especially to an elite standard – is the perfect cover for a paedophile. First, their charges have absolute faith in them to deliver the sporting success that they crave. This can be easily manipulated. Coaches have access to their protégées away from the prying eyes of parents and other adults. Indeed parents are often only too happy to deliver their children into the hands of these coaches who promise their child so much in return for their trust. Sport is a tactile business. Coaches and trainers are perfectly at liberty to touch their trainees in demonstrating techniques, even administering massages and rub downs. There are changing rooms and showers. There is undressing. There is discipline. Sports clubs seek success, audiences, and investment. Coaches who can develop talent and produce results are in high demand.
There is then the silencing of the victim. If – nothwithstanding the abuse – the involvement of the coach has led to some sporting success, then there are divided loyalties. There may be loyalties above that of the coach – to the club or to the sport. There may be threats – of being dropped from the team perhaps – should the teenager not acquiesce to the coach’s demands. And of course promises of greatness in the future. And the dreaded fear of people – particularly people in the sport – finding out.
Bolt Burdon Kemp has represented clients who have alleged abuse against Olympic instructors to those at local sports clubs, from elite athletes to hobbyists, in such sports as swimming, cricket, martial arts, football, rugby and cycling.
What Andy Woodward and Steve Walters have done is immense – they have shared their story with the world. That is humbling, and heartening. I hope it will encourage other survivors to disclose their experiences too, and make sure that the paedophiles who targeted them meet the justice they deserve.
The Football Association and the NSPCC have set up a help-line for anyone affected by the news of Bennell’s crimes. The helpline can be reached on 0808 800 5000.