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Football’s child sex abuse scandal: Survivors say game ‘must learn from mistakes’

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Survivors of child sexual abuse say football must not be complacent after the release of an independent review into historical abuse in the sport.

The review found the Football Association “did not do enough to keep children safe” between 1970 and 2005.

Ex-England international Paul Stewart said football had to ensure “this doesn’t happen again”.

Former youth player Ian Ackley said it was “incredibly naive” to think child sexual abuse is only in the past.

The long-awaited 710-page review, led by Clive Sheldon QC and commissioned by the FA in 2016, found there were “significant institutional failings” by the English game’s governing body, which was “too slow” to have sufficient measures put in place to protect children.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham offered “a heartfelt apology” to all survivors and added there was “no excuse” for the organisation’s failings.

‘Report not end of the matter’

Stewart, who played for a number of clubs including Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Blackpool, was abused by coach Frank Roper for four years as a child and says the game now needs “to make sure we don’t get complacent”.

“I just hope that we learn from our mistakes and not, because of this report, think that by any means our children are safe now,” he told the BBC.

Ackley, who was abused and raped by paedophile football coach Barry Bennell, works as a survivor support advocate for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – a role part-funded by the FA.

He said the report “was a new starting point” from which football can “springboard forward from”.

“Eyes are on the FA to see how much they are committed to endorsing the recommendations and learning lessons from the past and carrying on doing more learning,” he said.

Ian Ackley
Ian Ackley is working to help fellow survivors of abuse

Ackley said the game must remain “vigilant”, adding it is “absolutely naive to think it couldn’t happen again or that it isn’t happening right now”.

He said recommendations made in the review, which include the introduction of safeguarding training at several levels in the game, are “positive” but also “very broad brush”. Ackley added he hoped to see an independent watchdog organisation assigned to monitor the FA’s child protection measures.

The Offside Trust, a group set up by survivors for survivors of child sexual abuse in sport, said the report – which it criticised for being “long overdue” – should be “a key milestone in making sure safeguarding is never sacrificed in the future, at any level”.

“It is shocking that we have had to wait nearly five years to have someone suggest that a bit of safeguarding training every three years might be a good idea,” the Trust said in a statement.

“It is disappointing not to see anything stronger in terms of mandatory reporting.

“The dates for this report were arbitrary and there is a narrative that the issue of child sexual abuse in sport is historic. It is not.

“Sadly cases are still happening today. We implore the FA and all sporting bodies to recognise that reports like this are not the end of the matter.”

Concern over grassroots football

Stewart, who works with the English Football League delivering awareness sessions around safeguarding at club academies, said professional football had made “great strides” in protecting children, but he remains worried about the wider game.

“Ultimately where these people [offenders] preyed was grassroots football,” he said.

“I was one of those youngsters that had a dream and felt that the dream could be shattered by the individual who was abusing me.

“I would still be a little concerned when we look at the grassroots side of football and how these people may be able to operate at that level.”

Ackley said authorities must try to establish “how big a problem” sexual violence and abuse remains in football and the wider sporting community if they are to “make sure we eradicate” it.

“Thankfully a majority of people that either partake in sport and football or volunteer to make it happen are wonderful people,” he said.

“However we really need to make sure those good, well-intentioned people are as protected as the children or the vulnerable adults that participate in it.

“Don’t just assume that because someone has a badge, a whistle or a tracksuit that they are OK to leave your children with. Do the right thing and make sure – it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

The Offside Trust said it wanted to see “wealthy clubs” support the grassroots in their efforts.

“We are deeply disappointed that the opportunity to create a world-class standard for child protection and safeguarding in sport has been missed,” the Trust said.

Bullingham said that since 2016, when survivors came forward, new processes in grassroots football were brought in “which set standards that every county must meet, and that are independently assessed”.

He also said the FA has worked in conjunction with Operation Hydrant – set up by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in 2014 to oversee cases of “non-recent” child sex abuse within institutions or by people of public prominence – investigating “anyone brought to our attention by the review team”, and have “taken action where necessary”.

Sheldon, who led the review, said he wants “to make sure that clubs in the lower leagues also have access to paid, dedicated safeguarding staff”.

“Further steps need to be taken within the grassroots game to ensure that safeguarding is taken even more seriously than it is now,” he told the BBC.

  • Football’s Darkest Secrets – a three-part series examining historic child abuse in youth football all across England between the 1970s and the 1990s, airs on BBC One, from Monday, 22 March.

If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this article, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.

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