Sex abuse inquiry: English soccer failed to protect youths

LONDON (AP) — English soccer did not do enough to protect children from pedophile coaches in an “institutional failure” by the game’s governing body, an inquiry into widespread sexual abuse from 1970 to 2005 has found.

The English Football Association-commissioned independent review said there were at least 692 abuse survivors and 240 suspects in a 710-page report that catalogued failings by eight clubs, including Chelsea and Manchester City, to act on concerns about eight of the most prolific perpetrators of male sexual abuse.

Calling it a “dark day” for the sport, FA chief executive Mark Bullingham issued a televised apology to the survivors who were let down by clubs and authorities.

“No child should ever have experienced the abuse you did,” he said Wednesday from Wembley Stadium. “What you went through was horrific and it is deeply upsetting that more was not done by the game at the time, to give you the protection you deserved.

“There are consistent features in this review. Of bystanders who didn’t do anything. Of children that weren’t believed. Of the damage that has been caused.”

The inquiry led by attorney Clive Sheldon was sparked by a wave of media testimonies of survivors of abuse in 2016, including victims of Barry Bennell, a former youth talent scout for Manchester City.

“Warning signs were often missed or not acted upon,” Sheldon said, discussing the report. “This was usually out of ignorance or naivety. There was often a feeling that without ‘concrete evidence’ or a specific allegation from a child nothing could, or should, be done, and so there was a reluctance to investigate or monitor, let alone confront the perpetrator and interfere with his actions.”

However, some victims said the report didn’t go far enough in offering recommendations for improving measures to safeguard children in the future.

“(Sheldon) could have been far more punchy and far braver,” said Ian Ackley, who says he was raped hundreds of times by Bennell between 1979 and 1983.

The inquiry found City’s leadership in the 1980s did not investigate rumors of Bennell’s conduct when he was known around the club as a “Kiddy Fiddler” who had boys stay at his home. Crewe, a club where Bennell coached, also likely did not act on warnings from police.

While Crewe was silent on Wednesday, City issued a renewed apology “for the unimaginable suffering experienced by those who were abused,” having already started to compensate victims.

Bennell was first arrested in Florida in 1994 and convicted the following year of raping a British boy on a soccer tour in the United States.

The inquiry uncovered a letter from Sepp Blatter, who was then FIFA’s general secretary, with a newspaper clipping on Bennell’s case and asking the FA whether it had any information on the case given that Florida’s state attorney expressed a desire for Bennell to be banned from soccer worldwide. The FA told Blatter it had no information on a case and Sheldon’s report condemns the governing body for not acting urgently on the concerns sparks by Bennell’s jailing, even after they were highlighted in a TV documentary in 1997.

“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,” Sheldon wrote in his report. “These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period (October 1995 to May 2000, when the FA launched its comprehensive child protection program), the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”

Sheldon said “other matters took higher priority” at the FA. It was not a small organization given England staged the European Championship in 1996 and worked for years on an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2006 World Cup, with the FIFA vote in 2000.

It took until 2004 — a decade after Bennell’s arrest in Florida — for the FA to introduce rules for tours and tournaments addressing child protection, which Sheldon concluded “ought to have been agreed far earlier.”

Bennell is currently in jail in England.

He was first jailed in Britain in 1998 after returning from the U.S. but was not suspended from soccer until eight years after his release in 2003. Bennell was also jailed in 2015, with further convictions in 2018 and last year.

“The failure to take any action with respect to Bennell following his release from prison in 2003 is troubling,” Sheldon said. “Although there is no evidence that Bennell did seek to involve himself further with football, the FA had taken no steps to prevent this from happening.

“As a result, the FA allowed children to be put at potential risk of abuse by Bennell had he attempted to involve himself in football.”

Sheldon said that although child protection in sport has improved since 2005 he was making 13 recommendations particularly for the FA to now act on. They include assigning one board member the role of children’s safeguarding champion, to develop a five-year strategy and for annual spot checks of grassroots clubs’ safeguarding policies.

Chelsea has previously apologized for the reprehensible conduct by Eddie Heath, who coached youth teams from 1968-1979, after conducting its own investigation into child sexual abuse. Sheldon said Chelsea should have done more in response to the first disclosures by a player that Heath had made sexual advances around 1975.

A complaint about Heath was not escalated in 1975 by assistant coach Dario Gradi, who was also found to have not done enough to act on concerns about Bennell at Crewe. Sheldon said overnight stays by boys at both Gradi and Bennell’s homes had become “normalized” at the northwest England club where Gradi worked as manager between 1983 and 2007.

While Sheldon found no evidence Gradi “acted inappropriately with any of the boys who stayed at his house or any of the boys that he was working with,” the FA disclosed Wednesday that he is suspended from the game for safeguarding reasons.

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