Around 350 victims have reported child sexual abuse within United Kingdom soccer clubs, following a former player’s allegation that he was sexually assaulted as a young boy by a coach in the 1980s. Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing scandal:
How did it start?
On Nov. 17, The Guardian published a front page story in which Andy Woodward, a former lower league soccer player, broke his silence to allege that he was sexually abused by a soccer coach as a young boy.
Woodward, now 43, told the paper that from the ages of 11 to 15, he was abused by Barry Bennell, now 62, who worked for north east England’s Crewe Alexandra Football Club in the 1980s and 1990s. He was targeted by Bennell, whom Woodward said went for “the softer, weaker boys” and encouraged him to stay over at his house on weekends and summer holidays.
To ensure his victims did not out him, Bennell used violence and would threaten them with the future of their promising soccer careers, Woodward claims. In 1991 Bennell married Woodward’s older sister and the two became brothers-in-law. ““I had to attend that wedding, standing in the church when I really wanted to rip his throat out. It was torture,” Woodward told The Guardian.
Woodward’s career ended at the age of 29; he says he was unable to cope with his childhood trauma and suffered from depression and panic attacks. He decided to waive his anonymity last month to encourage other victims to come forward.
“Only now, at the age of 43, I feel I can actually live without that secret and that massive, horrible burden,” he said. “I want to get it out and give other people an opportunity to do the same. I want to give people strength.”
Has anyone else come forward?
Yes. Other former soccer players have waived their right to lifelong anonymity to come forward with claims that they were sexually abused by coachers as children, including midfielder Steve Walters, 44, former England and Tottenham soccer player Paul Stewart, 52, and ex-Manchester City striker David White, 49.
One player, Anthony Hughes, told the Sunday Mirror that Bennell abused him on a sofa while making him watch hardcore porn videos. Another, Chris Unsworth, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire program that he “was raped [by Bennell] between 50 and 100 times.”
As well as allegations against Bennell, subsequent allegations include former youth coach George Ormond (imprisoned in 2002 for offences against young soccer players in the area) and a former scout of Chelsea Football Club called Eddie Heath. On Nov. 29, the club released this statement regarding Heath: “Chelsea Football Club has retained an external law firm to carry out an investigation concerning an individual employed by the club in the 1970s, who is now deceased.”
How widespread could the abuse be?
It’s not clear yet, but there could be hundreds of victims. A new, 24-hour hotline run by a U.K. child protection charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the wake of the allegations, says it has received more than 250 calls. On Dec. 1, the BBC revealed 350 victims have reported child sexual abuse within U.K. soccer clubs.
Within the first three days of the hotline launching, the NSPCC made more than 60 referrals to a range of agencies across the U.K. According to the BBC, this was more than three times as many referrals as in the first three days of the Jimmy Savile scandal, during which 17 referrals were made.
The NSPCC said Saville, a former BBC presenter, abused at least 500 victims during his lifetime, including some as young as two. A report published by the Metropolitan Police in 2013 recorded 214 criminal offences, including 34 rapes, against Savile’s name across the U.K. between 1955 and 2009.
When Woodward was asked during a television interview about whether the latest scandal could be ‘the Jimmy Saville [of] football,’ he replied: “It’s potentially worse than that. My heart goes out to all the ex-footballers and those footballers that haven’t made it.”
Who is investigating this?
On Nov. 27, the Football Association (FA), the U.K.’s governing body of association soccer, announced it was carrying out an internal review. Individual clubs are also conducting inquiries. Fifteen police forces including Greater Manchester Police, Hampshire, Cheshire, Northumbria and the Metropolitan police have opened investigations. The Premier League said it was concerned by the allegations and urged those with information to come forward, the BBC reports.
Who is Barry Bennell and what will happen to him?
Bennell is a former youth scout and junior soccer coach, known for talent spotting. As well as working with Crewe Alexandra, he ran summer holiday camps in the U.K. and U.S. He has already spent years in jail for sexual abuses against children.
In 1994, he was charged with sexually abusing a 13-year-old British boy while on a tour to Florida. According to the BBC, when the 13-year-old returned home, he told his parents Bennell had sexually abused him and Bennell consequently served three years in a U.S. prison. In 1998, he was sentenced to nine years in prison after admitting 23 specimen charges of sexual offences against six boys aged nine to 15. A further 22 allegations were left to lie on his file. He was jailed for another historic case involving a 12-year-old boy for two years in May 2015.
Since these new allegations against him have surfaced, Bennell has been charged with eight offences of sexual assault against a boy aged under 14, according to prosecutors on Nov. 29. He is scheduled to appear before South Cheshire Magistrates’ Court on Dec. 14.
Just a few days before, on Nov. 25, Bennell was found unconscious and taken to a nearby hospital where he received treatment. He has since been discharged.
What has been the reaction?
The soccer players have been praised for their bravery in waiving their anonymity, particularly by others in the sporting industry. Former England goalscoring legend Gary Lineker tweeted that his former teammate, Paul Stewart, was “extremely courageous in telling his appalling story.”
Although the public’s reaction has generally been extremely sympathetic, darts player Eric Bristow, a five-time world champion, sparked outrage for posting a series of insensitive tweets. “Might be a looney but if some football coach was touching me when i was a kid as i got older i would have went back and sorted that poof out,” one read. Another tweet said “Dart players tough guys footballers wimps”.
Bristow has subsequently been sacked from Sky News, where he has contributed to the channel’s darts coverage since the early ’90s. “He was a contributor to our darts coverage in the past but we will not be using him in the future,” a spokesperson from Sky told The Guardian.