Abuse in football – Clive Sheldon QC report published

Yesterday saw the release of the long awaited report of Clive Sheldon QC into allegations of child abuse within football between 1970 and 2005.  The report was commissioned by the Football Association (the FA).

The report’s conclusions included the following:

  • Following high-profile convictions of child sexual abusers from the summer of 1995 until May 2000, the FA “could and should have done more to keep children safe”.
  • 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. These were significant institutional failings for which there was no excuse.  The FA “did not do enough”.
  • Even after May 2000, when the FA launched a comprehensive child protection policy and programme, “mistakes were still made”.
  • The FA failed to ban two of the most infamous abusers, Bob Higgins and Barry Bennell, from involvement in football.
  • There were known to be at least 240 suspects and 692 survivors, yet relatively few people reported abuse and the actual level was likely to be far higher.
  • Where incidents of abuse were reported to people in authority at football clubs, their responses were “rarely competent or appropriate”.
  • While several of the abusers knew each other, there was no evidence of a “paedophile ring” within football or any real collusion between the abusers.

Clive Sheldon QC also makes 13 recommendations, including the following:

  • That the FA should make arrangements to encourage all parents, carers, players and young people to receive safeguarding training.
  • That the FA Board and Senior Management Team should receive safeguarding training every three years, as should the Boards of Directors of professional clubs.
  • That one member of the FA’s Board should be assigned the role of Children’s Safeguarding Champion.
  • That the FA should develop a five year strategy with specific intervention to support the voices of children.
  • That all grassroots clubs should make their safeguarding policy and the contact details of the Welfare Officer readily available to parents and carers of all junior players.
  • That the FA should widen the system of spot checks for grassroots clubs.
  • That the FA should ensure that the Safeguarding Officer in professional clubs should report on a regular basis to their club’s Board.
  • That the FA should launch an appropriate social media and online campaign to direct all those involved in football to the appropriate information and advice.
  • That the FA should publish a safeguarding report on an annual basis.
  • That the FA devotes one day a year as a National Day of Safeguarding in football.

The report focuses specifically on the most notorious and high profile abusers, to include Barry Bennell, Bob Higgins, Ted Langford, Eddie Heath, George Ormond and Frank Roper, and the clubs with which they were associated. This includes the way in which each club dealt (or failed to deal) with the abusers and the allegations against them.

In a statement, FA Chief Executive Mark Bullingham offered “a heartfelt apology” to all survivors and stated that there was “no excuse” for its failings and agreed that the FA had been “too slow to act”.

He added that the report was “a very important piece of work” made possible by survivors bravely coming forward.

The Premier League stated that it accepted the report’s “findings and insight it provides”, and that the recommendations “will further strengthen safeguarding arrangements across the game” as “there is no room for complacency”.

The English Football League also said that it accepted the advice and would work with the FA, clubs and other stakeholders “to ensure [the recommendations] are implemented as a minimum [standard], where they have not been already”.

As to the reaction from survivors, The Offside Trust, which was set up by survivors of abuse within football after the scandal broke in October, stated that the recommendations were “blindingly obvious to anyone” and added that it was “disappointed not to see anything stronger in terms of mandatory reporting” and that it would have liked to have “seen more on wealthy clubs supporting grassroots safeguarding”.

There is little doubt that this needs to be a watershed moment for football.  The recommendations must be closely followed at all levels in order to try to provide the security and protection so clearly required.  All children must be able to participate in the national sport without fear of the horrific experiences suffered by so many who have gone before.

In the meantime, it has also been announced that ‘Football’s Darkest Secrets’, a three part documentary series examining historic child abuse in youth football will commence on BBC1 on Monday, 22 March.

David Milton, Partner, BLM

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