Football Opens Up About Child Sex Abuse
The notion of institutionalised child sex abuse is sadly not foreign to us, in the light of the revelations around TV and radio star Jimmy Savile. Now it's football's turn, as Andy Woodward has bravely revealed his abuse as a child by a professional football coach working for the youth academy attached to Crewe Alexandra, and six other men have come forward with similar sad and harrowing stories.
Woodward is now 43 years old; it's been more than 30 years since he became the victim of abuse as a child of 11 at the hands of football coach Barry Bennell. He believes that there are many others, potential hundreds, who have spent years hiding their own experiences; he wants to encourage them to speak up too.
Since Woodward waived his anonymity and spoke out about his ordeal, many others have come forward. Leeds United, Blackpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Newcastle clubs have also more recently been engulfed in allegations.
In the vast majority of child sex abuse cases, the victims know their abuser. Often, they already have some level of trust in them - they might be a family member, friend of the family, or a person with a positive public reputation. By the time Bennell had recruited Woodward, he had been working as a talent scout and coach for 30 years, selecting boys aged 9 to 14 who dreamt of playing football. In his interview with the Guardian, Woodward remembers being football-obsessed as a child, seeing his recruitment by Bennell as the first step toward achieving his dream: “I just wanted to play football. My mum and dad will say that I always had a football in my hands, wherever I went. I saw Crewe as the start of that dream. But I was soft-natured, too, and it was the softer, weaker boys Bennell targeted.”
Woodward remembers that he "trusted [Bennell] from the beginning" due to his reputation as "the best youth coach in the country". Therapist Peter Cockersell explains: "Sexual abuse is by definition an abuse of trust, and an abuse of power. In the case of football coaches, there is the trust placed in them by the children themselves and the trust placed by their parents/carers, and the institutional positions of trust they hold; then there is the power they hold as role models to emulate, as keyholders to the dream of a professional football career, and as adults held in high esteem and endowed with considerable invested authority".
After the abuse started, Bennell would use violence and manipulation to ensure his victims didn't speak up, either threatening them physically or threatening to ruin their chances of making it in football. Therapist Karen Pollock comments on the bravery of those who do speak up: "It's a huge step for any survivor to disclose. As well as shame around what happened to them abusers are often very skilled at ensuring silence". Feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame, fear of not being believed, yet alone understood, often stop children from coming forward at the time they experience the abuse.
Children often try to make sense of this violation of their physical and psychological space by convincing themselves the abuse is their fault. To say something is your fault is to deny that you are helpless and vulnerable in your position; if it is your fault you have control and you can stop it. Peter Cockersell explains that abuse is so complicated because "victims may well have welcomed, or at least accepted, the special attention of the abusive coach before the abuse became sexualized, or sometimes even after. This special attention can also be welcomed by parents, eager for their child to become the next Ronaldo. The child ends up holding the guilt, confusion, rage, distorted self-view, fear, mistrust, and secret knowledge: this can be deeply damaging, and is massively unfair".
Karen Pollock agrees that Bennell's role as coach and football culture are inextricable from these cases of abuse: "Those abused are afraid to speak out against someone who could end their career in the sport they love. Male victims of sexual abuse often feel their masculinity and sexuality have been undermined. As a culture we send out very strong message around how we expect men to behave: being in control, not being weak, not being a victim. Add into this the homophobia which surrounds football and it may be that many victims felt they could not speak out, as it would open them up to attack and ridicule. As a society we still struggle with the idea boys are also the victims of child sex abuse, very often framing them as willing, consensual partners, even at very young ages. Working with male survivors therefore takes particular skills in unpacking the mixed messages they have absorbed. This can be even more distressing for a survivor if they experienced sexual arousal, they may think it makes them gay, or that they were 'asking for it' ".
In 1998, Bennell was sentenced to nine years in jail, after admitting to sexually abusing six young boys aged 9 to 15. Woodward was 24 at the time and remembers a period of positivity and productivity immediately after Bennell's sentencing, but it wasn't long before the panic attacks started. Woodward's career ended when he was 29, unable to cope any longer with the impact of all he had endured as a child. Speaking to the Guardian, he recounts instances in which he would fake injury, when he was in fact having a panic attack, and needed to leave the pitch. He says he has been suicidal on "probably 10 occasions".
Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen comments: "Childhood sexual abuse is always psychologically harmful. I have yet to meet an adult survivor of sexual abuse whose sense of self was not damaged by this experience". The full extent of the impact of abuse may not be revealed until the child victim has become an adult, where depression, anxiety and panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and attempts, addiction, problems with sex and relationships are all common occurrences.
Steve Walters, the second man to come forward against Bennell, is still plagued by panic attacks, nightmares and sleep problems. Reading Woodward's interview gave him the strength to speak of his ordeal, after more than 30 years. Walters remembers his impression of Bennell as a child: "Everything was so impressive about him and he had this ability to make you feel special. He used to promise me he would make me a better player. He would tell me I was the best young midfield player he had ever seen, and that he would help me play for England, and I believed him."
Both Woodward and Walters feel massively let down by Crewe football club, which failed to protect them as children, and has not made a sufficiently sympathetic or apologetic statement in light of the men coming forward. The fact that Bennell was having young boys stay over at his house was common knowledge, but no one did anything; no one even spoke about it. Hamilton Smith, a board member for Crewe Alexandra between 1986 and 1990, raised concerns about Bennell's behaviour at the time, leading to a meeting that resulted in chairman Norman Rowlinson recommending they remove Bennell. Despite this, he retained his role as coach. Similarly to Jimmy Savile, Bennell's behaviour seems to have been shielded by his success and reputation. Where Savile raised £40 million for good causes, Bennell had a reputation for choosing potential star players.
David White, one-time England international player, has also recently spoken about being abused by Bennell, a coach he "hero-worshipped". This problem is much bigger than Bennell however. Former England and Tottenham player Paul Stewart has also recently shared his story of being abused as a child by his coach, for four years. He agrees with Woodward and Walters that the sex abuse victims could "number hundreds". The Football Association and the NSPCC have come together and launched a hot-line for footballers in light of these revelations. According the the Football Association, more than a hundred victims with similar stories have already been in touch. The hotline will be available 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.
This story was last updated on November 28
The Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on 116 123
NAPAC provide support for those recovering from child sex abuse on 0808 801 0331
You can find a therapist who specialises in working with those who have experienced sexual and physical abuse by using our questionnaire