By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King LLP, London, UK
On 17 March 2021, The English Football Association (the FA) published the long-awaited and major Report by Clive Sheldon QC into child sexual abuse in football between 1970 and 2005.
The Report is 710 pages long and was published following an independent review by Clive Sheldon QC.
The Report was prepared following an interview in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper on 16 November 2016 with Andy Woodward, a former professional footballer, now 43 years old. In the interview, Woodward talked publicly about the abuse he suffered from the age of 11 by one of his coaches, Barry Bennell (now a convicted paedophile serving a lengthy prison term). As a result of Woodward’s interview, the FA decided it was necessary to investigate events that had taken place in football and how child sexual abuse was able to take place.
Sheldon’s review took four years to complete, due to the sheer scale of the review, including examining in excess of one hundred thousand pages of documents and interviewing more than two hundred witnesses.
The following points set out some of the key findings, as referenced in the executive summary to the Report:
- Where abuse took place in football, the overwhelming evidence received during the review is that the abuse was not witnessed by others involved in the game. The abusers used elaborate grooming tactics, and their abuses took place in private, in the abusers’ home or car, hotel rooms or secluded rooms at training grounds.
- Children suffering the abuse very rarely told their family or friends. There were a number of reasons for this: they felt ashamed of what had happened; they would not believed if they explained what had happened; there would be repercussions against them or their family; or their football careers would be jeopardised.
- The abuse shattered the trust that survivors had in the abuser, and in those with the responsibility in football to keep children safe. The abuse had a devastating impact on the lives of many of the survivors, as well as their families and loved ones. Survivors have described to me the suicide attempts, excessive alcohol or drug intake or dependency, periods of depression and other mental illness, failed relationships with partners and children, which they attribute to the sexual abuse they experienced as children.
- For the majority of the time period the review focused on, there was no guidance provided to those working in football on child protection matters. This resulted in football club staff and officials generally unaware of child protection issues, received no training on such issues, did not pick up signs of abuse or if they did pick up signs, they did not examine them with curiosity or suspicion. It was only from the commencement of the 1998/99 season that Premier League and Football League clubs were required to have a member of staff trained in child protection issues.
- The FA only started thinking about child protection issues in the mid-1990s. Prior to that, the leading academic on child protection issues in sport, Celia Brackenridge, had been campaigning for child protection issues in sport to be taken seriously from the late-1980s; however, her message was not heeded by the sporting world until the mid-1990s.
The Sheldon Report also includes thirteen recommendations to strengthen safeguarding within football.
These recommendations include:
- The FA to make arrangements to encourage all parents/carers, players and young people to receive safeguarding training;
- The FA should require the Board of Directors of professional football clubs to receive safeguarding training on a regular basis: every three years and should encourage professional clubs to engage in safeguarding strategy and implementation;
- The FA should require all those engaging in a regulated activity, including managers and coaches of junior teams (under 18s) and open-age teams (teams comprised of adults and 16-17-year olds) at grassroots clubs to receive safeguarding training as part of their clubs’ affiliation to their County FA;
- The FA should publish a safeguarding report on an annual basis, which should include a statement from the FA Chairman; and
- The FA should, on an annual basis, widen the system of spot checks for grassroots clubs to review clubs’ safeguarding policies and practices, including overnight stays, away travel and trips, use of social media, and coaching in a digital environment, as well as to obtain the views of children and young people, and to sanction those clubs that fail to comply.
In response to the Report, the FA released a statement, in which it confirmed that steps are already underway to implement the recommendations set out in the Report as part of the wider safeguarding strategy of the FA.