Sexual abuse and sport: the current position

Earlier this month Barry Bennell, former coach with Crewe Alexander, was charged with 12 further counts of indecent assault and serious sexual assault on boys in the years between 1980 and 1987. This brings the outstanding charges against him to 20 since Andy Woodward and other players’ allegations about him were first made in November 2016.  He has pleaded Not Guilty to all charges.

Since those initial disclosures there has been a succession of disclosures and developments within UK football and other sports.

In January 2017 it was reported that over 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse within UK football clubs had been reported to the police, with 184 potential suspects and 526 potential victims. Up to 248 clubs are reported to have been ‘impacted’, but not necessarily had allegations made against them, and over 20 police forces are conducting investigations.

At present both the English FA and Scottish FA have independent reviews running.   Neither has been incorporated into the statutory inquiries into historic child sexual abuse also running in both jurisdictions.

The terms of reference for the English FA review have been revised since it was first established and it made its first call for evidence in January 2017. All amateur and professional football clubs have now been written to asking for information about allegations of child sexual abuse between 1970 and 2005.  Responses were due by 15 March 2017.

The Scottish FA Board has appointed a chair, Martin Henry, and approved the terms of reference for the independent review of non-recent sexual abuse allegations in Scottish football. The review will consider:

  • whether or not and to what extent the Scottish FA was aware of the matters highlighted and now brought to its attention;
  • what steps were taken by the Scottish FA during the relevant periods in relation to the protection of children brought to its attention at that time and; to identify any failings or deficiencies on the part of the Scottish FA in that regard;
  • what steps were taken by its members and/or affiliated and/or associated organisations, either at the time of them being made aware or subsequently, and identified as relevant to the alleged incident(s) and to those concerned. This will include responses, decisions and actions either taken or omitted; and,
  • what lessons have been learned by the Scottish FA and its members and/or affiliated and/or associated organisations since those incidents took place and following any investigations that have taken place to ensure that the risk of abuse is reduced and where possible eliminated.

There are no dates available yet for the progress and publication of its findings.

There have also been over 20 referrals to the overriding Police investigation, Operation Hydrant, in relation to allegations of abuse in sports other than football including rugby, gymnastics, martial arts, tennis, wrestling, golf, sailing, athletics, cricket and swimming.

It will clearly be some further time before any conclusions are reached in relation to what has happened within football and other sports in the UK. Notably within the Australian Royal Commission’s case study No. 39 published in October 2016 (the response to certain football (soccer), cricket and tennis organisations to allegations of child sexual abuse) there was comment and further recommendations in relation to the resources available to sporting clubs for guidance on child protection.  Many of those findings apply equally to UK sports organisations.


Sarah Firth, Associate, BLM

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