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Football Association institutional failings meant children were not kept safe

The Football Association was guilty of “institutional failings” in delaying bringing in child safeguarding measures, an independent review of sexual abuse in the past has concluded.

Posted on 17 March 2021

The review by Clive Sheldon QC concludes there was no institutional conspiracy or paedophile ring operating in football. But the report says staff did not alert police to abuse suffered by children, and that the FA acted far too slowly to introduce appropriate and sufficient child protection measures.

It makes 13 recommendations for the FA to improve safeguarding including a board member becoming a safeguarding champion, an annual review of safeguarding spot-checks that grassroots clubs can carry out and the employment of safeguarding officers at all 92 professional clubs. It also calls for an annual safeguarding review.

Sheldon also said that the FA’s safeguarding processes should be monitored by an independent, external oversight agency.

He said high-profile convictions – including one for serial abuser Barry Bennell in the United States in 1995 – should have served as the catalyst for change, but that it took another five years for the FA to put adequate processes in place, reports Press Association (PA).

“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,” the report stated.

“These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period, the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”

There were failings after 2000, the report said. No measures were put in place to stop Bennell, who had worked as a youth coach connected with Manchester City, Crewe and Stoke, from returning to football after he was released from prison in 2003. Although there was no evidence that he had returned to football, the FA’s failure to monitor the situation “allowed children to be put at potential risk”.

The FA was also criticised for failing to look again at allegations against Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins who was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2019 after being found guilty of 46 counts of indecent assault against 24 people between 1971 and 1996.

The review stated that, in some cases, “clubs acted too slowly, or inappropriately” in response to reports of abuse. There were many examples where clubs linked to abusers had received complaints and failed to handle them properly.

The review said that data passed to it by Operation Hydrant in August 2020 had identified 240 suspects and 692 survivors.

The number who were abused but had not come forward was much higher, says Sheldon, but he concluded that abuse was “not commonplace” and that the “overwhelming majority” of children were able to engage with football safely.

Leigh Day solicitor Andrew Lord said:

“The Sheldon Report has shone a light on one of the darkest chapters in football’s history. The scale of the abuse of children within youth football is truly shocking, and over recent years there have been a number of reports of horrid manipulation and abuse of young aspiring sports stars by adults who were supposed to have their best interests at heart. The bravery of the survivors speaking out about what they were made to endure cannot be underestimated.

"Today we are able to understand more of the institutional failures which led to abuse going undetected for so long. We can see that the FA was previously slow to act and that clubs were ill-equipped to tackle safeguarding issues. It is time for the FA and individual clubs to take prompt and decisive action, by putting in place the measures which are necessary to ensure that a scandal of this magnitude involving abuse of children cannot happen again.”

The Sheldon Review was commissioned by the FA in 2016 after Andy Woodward waived his anonymity to speak about his abuse by Bennell. The report includes 20 survivors’ stories of the abuse they suffered.

PA reports that Sheldon said: “I very much hope that this report will be read carefully by all persons involved in administering the game of football today, including the FA and the clubs who were associated with perpetrators of abuse.

“Understanding and acknowledging the appalling abuse suffered by young players in the period covered by the review is important for its own sake. Survivors deserve to be listened to, and their suffering deserves to be properly recognised.

“As well as recognising and facing up to what happened in the past, it is also important that this terrible history is not repeated, and that everything possible is done now to safeguard the current and future generations of young players. I hope that this report will make some contribution towards that.”

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Andrew Lord
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Andrew Lord

Andrew Lord is an associate solicitor in the abuse claims team.

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