Scottish Football Association publishes final independent report on sexual abuse in Scottish football

On 11 February 2021, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) published a final, independent report on sexual abuse in Scottish football. This report – link here is dated July 2020. The reasons, if any, for the delay in publication are unclear.

The report comprises three sections, broadly covering:

  • Individual accounts of the events and incidents of non-recent child sexual abuse in Scottish football mainly occurring in the 1970s, 80s and 90s;
  • The safeguarding “journey” within Scottish football from the 1990s until recent years; and
  • The current arrangements and issues in Scottish football related to the wellbeing and protection of young people from sexual abuse and exploitation.

In the remainder of this blog, we focus on section (1). This section addresses three main questions: (i) who in Scottish football knew about these matters at the time? ; (ii) What did they know? ; and (iii) What did they do?  

For the purposes of section (1), the review team spoke with 33 individuals who provided personal accounts of sexual abuse in connection with Scottish football. 18 of these accounts are specifically summarised in the report with Celtic Boys Club, Hibernian, Motherwell, Partick Thistle and Rangers among the clubs mentioned.

On question (i), the report concludes that “in the majority of situations … no-one in Scottish football ‘knew’ in the sense that they had been in possession of concrete information concerning actual allegations or incidents or witnessed events such as to confirm that sexual abuse was taking place at that time or had recently taken place.”

On question (ii), the report concludes that “there may have been variable degrees of suspicion about individuals on the part of people involved in the game, and some of these suspicions ran high.”

On question (iii), the report concludes that “information (where it was not shared) should have been shared within football in respect of matters of concern or suspicion.”

The first of the report’s 97 recommendations is that “the clubs and organisations concerned issue an unequivocal and unreserved public apology to those who have been personally directly affected by sexual abuse in Scottish football. This apology should be on behalf of the club / organisation itself as well as the wider football family. Furthermore, clubs and organisations concerned should openly acknowledge the impact of these events on those affected and the enduring effect this has had on them (and their families) into their adult lives.” The Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 is perhaps of note on this. From 19 June 2017, when this legislation came into force, an apology is not admissible in a Scottish civil case as evidence of anything relevant to wrongdoing.

Under the heading “shared inheritance”, the report alludes to the issue of whether Celtic Boys Club and Celtic FC should be considered separate or conjoined entities, saying “if this relationship and history between the youth football club and the senior football club was so shared, so close, and so inextricable then when sexual abuse of young players formed part of the history of one then it too formed part of the history of the other. A shared heritage is not confined to trophies, victories and celebrations. It also extends to defeats, failures, and deficiencies.” The report makes clear, though, that its purpose is to address matters of “accountability and responsibility” and not legal liability.

The vast majority of the report’s other 96 recommendations are re-statements of recommendations for the future made in an interim report of June 2018.

With regard to the position south of the border, there is still no definite date for the final Report of Clive Sheldon QC, concluding the independent Review established by the English Football Association in 2016.  The Report was initially expected to be published by the end of 2018, though was delayed due to ongoing criminal investigations (in particular concerning Barry Bennell and Bob Higgins) and to allow all survivors to have the opportunity to come forward.  The last update from the Review team was on 15 December 2020, when Clive Sheldon QC wrote all survivors and survivor groups setting out that his team is undertaking the final stages of its work and doing all that it can to complete it as soon as possible.

David Milton, Partner and Fiona McEwan, Associate and

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