Sports

Sexual Abuse in Soccer: How A Flawed System Still Places Youngsters at Risk

Allegations of historic child sexual abuse have become football's biggest talking point in recent months, but the issue of institutional exploitation is not a problem of the past.
January 23, 2017, 7:23pm
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Allegations of historic child sexual abuse have become football's biggest talking point in recent months, but the issue of institutional exploitation in the sport is not a problem of the past. There is evidence to suggest that young people could still be vulnerable to predatory paedophiles targeting youth set ups.

It is clear that football has failed in its responsibility to prevent endemic and institutional abuse. A disclosure by the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) at the end of 2016 revealed that 155 potential suspects have been identified in connection with allegations of historic sexual abuse in the sport, with 148 football clubs impacted. The indicative number of victims stood at 429 when this report was published, with the age range for potential victims at the time of the abuse spanning four to 20 years of age.

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A slew of allegations have emerged since former Crewe Alexandria player Andrew Woodward waived his right to anonymity for an interview with The Guardian in November 2016. These claims of child sexual exploitation are certainly not restricted to an era where predatory paedophiles were free to carry out their abuses in plain sight. In fact, some of the referrals reported by helplines and law firms are far more recent, sparking further concerns that children playing in youth teams in 2017 could still be at risk.

Read More: The UK Soccer Child Sexual Abuse Scandal, Explained

Steven Walters was the second former footballer to reveal the abuse he suffered. Now 45, Walters became Crewe Alexandra's youngest debutant in 1988. He is one of the survivors behind the Offside Trust, an organisation launched in December to support players and their families who have suffered from abuse.

Steve Walters, photographed at the launch of the Offside Trust // PA Images

Asked whether he thought children were still at risk of abuse in the game, Walters told VICE Sports: "We know for a fact there's still some form of abuse going on now within football. We know there's one or two people who are being investigated now.

"You hear people keep saying, 'Oh, it was all these years ago, it was the eighties, blah blah blah', but people need to open their eyes.

"There's loads of cases going on now from the nineties and after the millennium. It's ongoing all the time. People are very naive if they think it was just historical."

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Worryingly, it seems that Walters may be right.

When we spoke to Charles Derham, head of the abuse team at Verisona Law, he echoed the view that abuse is an ongoing concern. "Unfortunately there's always going to be an individual who has an unhealthy interest in children and who will find a way of attempting to gratify themselves. They focus on locations with easier access to children: schools, youth clubs, sporting clubs and so forth. These are targets for these kinds of individuals."

Mr Derham also suggested that lower-level clubs were more likely to see these kinds of abuses. He spoke specifically about a claim Verisona Law is currently pursuing against the FA regarding Daniel Gersh, the former director of Essex-based Southside Juniors' Football Club, who was jailed in 2007 after admitting 60 child sex offences. Mr Derham told me that Gersh was an FA-registered coach running a small club, and these grassroots groups could be more vulnerable today.

Walters echoed these concerns in our interview, adding that the Offside Trust aims to protect children from the top all the way down to grassroots football: "The Premiership [sic], they've got the finance to safeguard all the kids, but obviously as you go further down the leagues they can't afford to have a safeguarding officer or all these processes in place."

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Calls to helplines for survivors of child sex abuse back up the suggestion that the wide-scale exploitation of young people in football is not confined to the past. John Brown, the NSPCC lead on tackling sexual abuse, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in December that the calls being received by the charity's hotline were about current concerns, as well as historical and non-recent abuse. While he was unable to provide details, Mr Brown said: "[It] would be naive to assume that all the concerns were in the past."

Fears about more recent cases of abuse were echoed by NAPAC, a UK-wide charity supporting adults who were abused in childhood. We spoke to Kate Stipala, Head of Public Affairs at NAPAC, three weeks after Andrew Woodward came forward to share his story. Ms Stipala said: "We've seen a 50 per cent increase in male callers in the last three weeks and a tenfold increase in people signing up for support groups. Over the past three weeks, 35 per cent of visitors are aged 18-34 years old. 12 per cent are 18-25 years old, and 23 per cent are 25-34 years old.

Steve Walters playing for Crewe in 1992, age 20 // PA Images

"Generally, people who call NAPAC are in the 30-50 age group. I think this may be the football effect: since Andy Woodward's disclosure, more young people have realised we exist and are looking online for support."

So, with charities and legal firms suggesting that institutional abuse could still be happening in football, what safeguards have been put in place to protect young people from harm?

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In 2001, the FA instituted new rules to protect children, requiring teams to have a trained safeguarding or welfare officer. Former Football Association chief executive Mark Palios told the BBC's Breakfast that the FA had sent letters to clubs across the country urging them to look at their procedures.

Palios admitted, however, that high-profile clubs are "more easily regulated" than grassroots outfits, which rely largely on volunteer workers, who are more difficult to direct. There are certainly more safeguarding officers in the youth football community than there were when Woodward and Walters were playing in the Crewe academy, as well as an increase in the number of welfare offices, whose job it is to make sure the goals of the association are met.

Speaking to individuals with varying degrees of involvement in clubs across the country, we kept getting the same answer: all staff working with children are subject to Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks. Replacing the old Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, the DBS is designed to help employers make safer recruitment decisions and prevent unsuitable candidates from working with vulnerable groups, including children.

However, there is evidence to suggest that these FA guidelines aren't tough enough to protect all children from predatory paedophiles. The case currently being pursued by Verisona Law against the FA involves an individual who was assaulted at a grassroots club in 2002 – a year after the regulations were supposed to come into force. Some critics believe that this is because FA regulations rely too heavily on children being able to report abuse. An alternative form of protection called mandatory reporting – which makes it a criminal offence not to report neglect or suspicions of neglect – is used in many other countries.

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As more survivors feel safe enough to come forward and share their stories of sexual abuse, it seems obvious that the search for justice on behalf of victims of historic offences needs to be paired with a more determined effort to safeguard children at all levels of the modern youth system. The NSPCC's John Brown also told Today that a zero-tolerance approach to abuse and harassment was needed in football clubs, and that whistleblowers should be listened to.

NAPAC suggested that a tendency to ignore the concerns of whistleblowers in the past may have contributed to the suppression of any known abuses in the sport. As Kate Stipala put it: "What NAPAC have found is that people that did have concerns may have told someone else, and then a group of directors have said: 'Don't worry about it'. There were obviously concerns being raised and not properly investigated, with people going on a gut feeling of: 'Well, he's a nice bloke, he wouldn't do that.'"

Andy Woodward, the first player to speak openly about his abuse and a co-founder of the Offside Trust // PA Images

Ms Stipala told me that although certain sports' governing bodies may have guidelines in place, no legal requirements exist to protect children. That's why the charity submitted their contributions to a government consultation on legislation to impose mandatory reporting. Ms Stipala told me that NAPAC is "supporting a legal requirement for adults working with children to report the signs of child abuse if they spot them. There's currently guidance in place saying you should do this, but it's not a legal requirement. It varies a lot. This isn't just an issue for football: it's an issue for all sports, all youth settings. We are in favour of people being required to report suspected abuse to a safeguarding person."

Steven Walters told VICE Sports that the Offside Trust is in the process of producing a number of new and unique approaches intended to safeguard all children in youth football settings. At the start of this year, Walters bemoaned the lack of support expressed by current players to abuse victims, describing it as a "deafening silence" which was both "shocking and hurtful". During our conversation, Walters told me he was "gobsmacked" at the current lack of support, citing a perceived problem of ignorance within football.

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Walters expressed concerns that a lack of support from current players could prevent more recent victims from coming forward, as young people see a complete lack of verbal support from the professionals they idolise. He told me: "All they will be [hearing] is that eerie silence – football's carrying on now. They're not going to come out and say anything because they're going to be scared – they're going to feel let down by the game of football."

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The problem of child sex abuse is certainly not specific to football, but there are a number of factors that make youth academies and grassroots kids' clubs particularly susceptible to exploitation. With the rise of hyper-professionalisation, football is more competitive than ever before. Only a minority of young players will go on to play at the top level and, for ambitious children with dreams of success, this places a tremendous amount of pressure on tender shoulders.

Children from humble backgrounds in small towns up and down the country rely on coaches and scouts to steer them through an aggressive and economically minded machine. The desperation to succeed, determination to impress and deference towards authority figures is still a deeply dangerous combination for child players. Considering the manner in which youth talent is trained, and the power of scouts and coaches to make or break a child's future, it seems young players are still placed in a vulnerable position in football's youth system.

If we are to feel confident in the assertion that children are totally safe from sexual abuse in youth football, then governing bodies, clubs and grassroots organisations must be made subject to legal requirements that prevent exploitation. A rigid, uniform system of checks and balances is the only way to make the processes of vetting and recruitment open and transparent. Past failures make it clear that whistleblowers should be encouraged to come forward, to prevent the kinds of clandestine cover-ups and suppressed secrets which abounded in Woodward and Walters' era in the youth system.

As football continues to catalogue the incoming stream of historic abuse claims and authorities begin pursuing justice for survivors we must not neglect to make the current system safer. Openness, transparency and mandatory safe-guarding measures are the best way to do this.

@emiliabona