Hundreds of children’s lives were ruined by abuse over the course of three and a half decades as warning signs were missed out of “ignorance and naivety”, an independent review has concluded.
The Football Association, the Premier League and the EFL have apologised to survivors and thanked them for their bravery in speaking out about the horrors they endured at the hands of abusers, some of whom had connections to professional clubs.
The FA was found to be guilty of an inexcusable “institutional failing” for delaying the implementation of child protection measures in the period between the autumn of 1995 and the spring of 2000.
“Warning signs were often missed or not acted upon,” Sheldon said.
“This was usually out of ignorance or naivety. There was often a feeling that without ‘concrete evidence’ or a specific allegation from a child nothing could, or should, be done, and so there was a reluctance to investigate or monitor, let alone confront the perpetrator and interfere with his actions.
“Unlike today, where the best practice is to inquire further, or at least investigate, where there are ‘seeds of doubt’, this was not the general practice during the period 1970 to 2005. As a result, in many cases, perpetrators were able to hide within football, and use their positions to ruin the lives of many children.”
FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said what had occurred was a “gut-wrenching breach of trust” and he confirmed his organisation would adopt all 13 recommendations to improve safeguarding made by Sheldon in his report.
Sheldon concluded that the FA had “not done enough to keep children safe” in the period between 1995 and 2000. While he felt improvements were made thereafter, he highlighted key mistakes in the period that followed, such as the failure to monitor serial abuser Barry Bennell – described by the judge who sentenced him to 31 years in prison in 2018 as “the devil incarnate” – on his release from prison in 2003. Although he did not return to football, the FA had “allowed children to be put at potential risk” by not monitoring him.
Bennell was not suspended by the FA until 2011.
The FA also failed to revisit allegations made against former Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins even when the standard of proof required in disciplinary cases was lowered in 2003.
Higgins was sentenced to 24 years in prison for abusing 24 youth players over a 25-year period in 2019.
Dario Gradi did not escalate a complaint about Chelsea youth coach Eddie Heath in 1975 when he was the west London club’s assistant coach, and Sheldon said Gradi “should have done more” too to act upon rumours and concerns that were expressed about Bennell at Crewe. Sheldon said overnight stays by boys at both Gradi and Bennell’s homes had become “normalised” at the Cheshire club.
However, he added: “There is no evidence that Dario Gradi acted inappropriately with any of the boys who stayed at his house or any of the boys that he was working with.”
Gradi worked as Crewe’s manager between 1983 and 2007.
Aston Villa should have reported disclosures about sexual abuse by Ted Langford to the police when his role as a scout was terminated in July 1989, while Sheldon found Newcastle “should have acted more quickly” regarding disclosures of abuse by George Ormond at the Monty’s Youth Club in early 1997.
Manchester City, a club Bennell had connections to before he joined Crewe, published the findings of an independent investigation they had commissioned on Wednesday afternoon and issued an apology.
“No one can remove the suffering of those who have experienced sexual abuse as children as a result of their involvement with football,” the statement said.
“They were entitled to expect full protection from the kind of harm they endured.”
Survivors of abuse criticised the recommendations in the report.
Ian Ackley, sexually abused by Bennell between 1979 and 1983 and who works as the Professional Footballers’ Association survivor support advocate, said the report was “as dilute as Vimto for a two-year-old”.
“He (Sheldon) could have been far more punchy and far braver,” Ackley added.
The Offside Trust, a charity which supports survivors of abuse, said in a statement: “We would have liked to have seen more on wealthy clubs supporting grassroots safeguarding.
“We are deeply disappointed that the opportunity to create a world-class standard for child protection and safeguarding in sport has been missed.
“It’s like playing in the world’s longest tournament only to get to the final and be told that the outcome had already been decided years ago.”
The Sheldon report was commissioned by the FA in December 2016 in the wake of Andy Woodward waiving his anonymity to speak about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Bennell.
It includes 20 survivors’ testimonies of the abuse they suffered and outlines in detail the impact it had on their lives.
One especially heart-breaking section read: “The most common theme was that the abuse has led to an emotional barrier that prevented many survivors from being able to demonstrate their love fully for those closest to them.
“As well as struggles with intimacy with partners, some reported being unable to hug or kiss their own children.”