Andy Woodward, a former defender for fourth-tier English soccer team Crewe Alexandra, told The Guardian two weeks ago about the repeated sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of convicted pedophile Barry Bennell, who was a Crewe youth coach in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then Bennell has been charged with eight additional counts, a number of additional alleged victims have gone public, more alleged abusers in the sport have been named, a number of clubs and the English FA have launched internal investigations, at least eight different police forces have confirmed they have active investigations into sexual abuse in soccer, and a hotline created to report soccer-related abuse has received hundreds of calls.
Barry Bennell was a youth coach for Crewe Alexandra from 1983 to 1992, and also worked as a coach or scout for clubs including Manchester City, Stoke City, and Leeds United. He was arrested in Florida in 1994 after a player accused him of abuse, while leading amateur side Stone Dominoes FC on a United States tour. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Upon returning to England, Bennell was arrested and convicted of 23 offenses against six boys, with 22 more alleged offenses put on hold, and the number of victims is believed to be in the dozens, if not hundreds. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. In 2015 Bennell was arrested for an offense that occurred in 1980, and sentenced to another two years in prison. He was paroled earlier this year.
On Monday, Bennell was found unconscious at a park 40 miles from his home and hospitalized, and yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Services announced that Bennell was being charged with eight new offenses against boys under the age of 14, all of which are alleged to have taken place between 1981 and 1985.
Following Andy Woodward’s lead, a number of other professional soccer players have leveled abuse allegations at Bennell. One-time England international David White, former Crewe youth player Steve Walters, and former Manchester City youth players Jason Dunford and Chris Unsworth have all alleged that they were victims of Bennell, with Unsworth saying he was raped by Bennell up to 100 times.
Bennell isn’t the only convicted sexual abuser to have used his position as a soccer coach to prey on boys. Former Newcastle player Derek Bell recently detailed how he was abused by youth club coach George Ormond in the 1970s. In 2002, Ormond was convicted of 15 counts against seven boys ranging from 1975 to 1999, and was sentenced to six years in jail.
White and former England international Paul Stewart have also told police that they were abused by a yet-unnamed coach, with Stewart saying the abuse went on for four years.
The Professional Footballers’ Association—the union for soccer players in England and Wales—has said that more than 20 players have come to them with allegations of abuse, with chief executive Gordon Taylor saying that Leeds and Blackpool, who had been previously unlinked to the growing scandal, had been named in allegations.
It is becoming increasingly likely that soccer across England is embroiled in a Catholic Church-like—or perhaps more accurately and appropriately, a Jimmy Savile-like—abuse scandal. UK police have set up a special hotline to report soccer-related abuse, and have already received at least 250 calls. Questions are beginning to be asked of soccer clubs about who knew what and when, and what these institutions did (or didn’t) do to protect young players from abuse.
Most obviously, Crewe Alexandra has launched what they say will be an independent investigation into its employment of Bennell, and there is some evidence that the club knew or should’ve known of his crimes. A former Crewe board member told The Guardian that the board was told that Bennell had abused a boy, and held a number of meetings about him in the late 1980s, but didn’t do anything. And when Bennell was first convicted in England in 1998, victims said that at least one instance of abuse occurred on a Crewe training pitch, and another at the home of Crewe’s then-manager.
Manchester City has also announced it is conducting an investigation into Bennell’s conduct when he worked for them. Chelsea announced that it has hired an external law firm to investigate sex abuse at the club, after being approached by The Telegraph with evidence that in the last three years it secretly paid off (with an attached non-disclosure agreement) a former youth player who threatened to go public with allegations that ex-chief scout Eddie Heath abused him in the 1970s.
The repercussions of this burgeoning scandal may reach the very top. Hamilton Smith, the former Crewe board member, says he requested that the English Football Association investigate Crewe’s youth program in 2001—after Bennell had been convicted twice—and in response they wrote him a letter that read, in part, that they had “investigated the issues and is satisfied that there is no case to answer.” The FA has appointed an outside lawyer to lead an investigation into what clubs knew, as well as commissioned the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to audit the FA itself.
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are confidential.