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.

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Scottish Football Association Independent Review

Yesterday, the Scottish Football Association confirmed that it is to set up an Independent Review of child abuse allegations in football. The SFA Chief Executive pointed out, though, that “Police Scotland has reaffirmed that it is the investigatory authority regarding reports of child sexual abuse in football.” NSPCC Scotland, which has set up a specialist hotline to support and advise survivors of football abuse, has welcomed the SFA’s announcement of an Independent Review, with its National Head of Service noting that “The number of cases highlighted so far reveal the deeply disturbing extent of abuse that has been going on within football.”

The SFA’s Independent Review is to focus on “processes and procedures” in place both currently and historically in Scottish Football. The “initial scoping phase” of the review will run into 2017, with the SFA committed to commenting further on it thereafter.

Last week in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister had been urged to extend the remit of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry to deal also with non-recent abuse in football. The First Minister declined, noting that “To widen the remit of (the) Inquiry would mean that it would perhaps take many years longer to conclude its investigations and would risk it becoming completely unwieldy. We would be at risk, I think, of breaking our word to survivors of in-care abuse. My view is that we should allow that Inquiry to get on with its job and allow the police to get on with investigating allegations of abuse in football.

It is worth noting the differences between the ongoing Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry and the SFA Independent Review which is to be set up.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry is a statutory one, set up by the Scottish Government under the Inquiries Act 2005. It is charged, amongst other things, with: creating a national public record and commentary on abuse of children in care in Scotland for the period within living memory to no later than 17 December 2014; considering the extent to which failures to protect children in care have been addressed; and to consider whether further changes in practice, policy or legislation are necessary to protect children in care from abuse in future. Within four years of the establishment of the Inquiry (by October 2019), it is to report to Scottish Ministers and to make recommendations.

The SFA Independent Review, on the other hand, will not be set up under a public Act of Parliament so its scope and power, as well as how it is conducted, will not be governed by the Inquiries Act 2005. However, whilst its constitution and scope is yet to be defined, the SFA Chief Executive has given an indication of its purpose, referring to “what lessons football can learn from (abuse) allegations” so that “Scottish football is a safe and enjoyable environment for children.


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Written by Frank Hughes, Partner

Football reviews

Following the disclosure by more than 20 football players that they were sexually abused, the FA has announced an internal review. At the same time, Crewe Alexandra has said it will launch an independent review.

Thus far, Leeds United, Stoke, Manchester City, Newcastle and Blackpool are all clubs which have been linked to the disclosure of abuse, in addition to Crewe Alexandra. Multiple police forces are investigating.

Commentators have described these disclosures as the tip of the iceberg and compared them to the disclosures which followed the initial revelations about Jimmy Savile. Calls have been made for a wide-ranging inquiry‎. Were it not facing challenges of its own then the IICSA would seem the obvious organisation to lead such a wide-ranging inquiry but that is probably unrealistic for it at the current time and importantly it needs not to be rushed in to another investigation without proper remit and focus. However, having multiple reviews, investigations and inquiries is not in anyone’s interest, least of all those abused nor those seeking to learn from what has happened so as to ensure best practice is in place now.

In due course those abused may seek redress. In undertaking reviews, regard should also be had to how and when support and redress, in whatever form appropriate, can be provided without undue complication and delay. Lessons should be learned from the Savile disclosures and the criticism of the IICSA so that football stands as a beacon of good practice which other organisations with less financial acumen can follow and learn from.


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Written by Paula Jefferson, partner

Sexual abuse and professional sport

Sexual abuse in the world of professional football has hit the headlines over the last few days.

Last week former professional footballer, Andy Woodward, bravely spoke publicly to The Guardian about having been seriously sexually abused by football coach and scout Barry Bennell whilst a youth player at Crewe Alexandra. Woodward, now 43, did make a career in professional football but believes that this ended prematurely at the age of 29 because of depression, anxiety and panic attacks caused as a result of the abuse.  He believes there are many more victims of Bennell.

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Sports organisations and child protection – the role of the coach

Recent coverage in Ireland of the trial of Bill Kenneally, an accountant who was also a sports coach, for the sexual abuse of boys between 1984 and 1987, has brought to the fore many common themes which the current abuse related inquiries will be interested in.  Mr Kenneally pleaded guilty to sample counts of abuse. His victim described how he had been warned not to speak of the abuse as his abuser was from a powerful political family. The use of a position of authority (here as a local businessman) to engineer access to victims and enforce their silence by threats and power is something which the IICSA has already said it will consider in its inquiry in England & Wales.

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