London: Leading football clubs made secret payments to buy the silence of young players sexually abused by coaches, The Daily Telegraph disclosed, as the growing scandal threatened to engulf the sport.
A well-placed source said a number of clubs, including at least one Premier League team, had paid compensation to footballers but only after victims had signed confidentiality agreements so strict that along with their families and lawyers they are banned from saying publicly if the cases even existed.
The disclosure will add to concern that the national game has covered up historic sexual abuse for years. The crisis intensified Friday night when the Metropolitan Police, Britain’s biggest force, announced it was investigating abuse at several London clubs after receiving a number of complaints. That followed an announcement earlier in the day by Hampshire Police that it had opened a criminal inquiry into sexual abuse at football clubs in its area.
On Friday, Cheshire Police, which had already started an inquiry, said that “a growing number of disclosures” had been made to the force about more than one alleged offender, while Northumbria Police said it was investigating an allegation by an unnamed former Newcastle United player that he was abused in the club’s youth system.
Other police forces have been told by Norfolk Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child sex abuse issues, not to disclose whether or not they have received reports “until the national position is clear”.
A number of former footballers have come forward since Andy Woodward took the courageous step of speaking out publicly last week about abuse he suffered at the hands of Barry Bennell, a former Crewe Alexandra coach, who was jailed three times for sex offences against boys. A senior source familiar with the legal cases told The Daily Telegraph that a number of clubs had settled abuse claims in recent years.
The source said: “These cases are subject to strict confidentiality agreements. They relate to allegations against football clubs. One of them is a Premier League club. It is not possible legally for the victims to say anything about the cases. That’s how the clubs have dealt with it.”
Woodward said he was disgusted if clubs had been buying off victims in return for silence. “I’d be mortified if that were the case,” said Woodward, who was sexually assaulted by Bennell over a four-year period. Woodward said he was unaware of Crewe paying compensation to victims. “I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “My focus is on getting some justice for these victims.”
Richard Scorer, head of the abuse team at Slater and Gordon lawyers, said ex-footballers could be in line for huge payouts if they can show they missed out on lucrative contracts at big clubs because of careers blighted by abuse. That will raise the spectre of smaller clubs being forced into bankruptcy by high-value compensation claims.
Scorer said: “Football clubs as well as the Football Association have been very slow to realise the risks. This scandal has shown that the football world — especially during this period — had an environment where a paedophile could offend with relative impunity, with few safeguards in place to prevent that happening. Only time will tell how widespread the problem was.”
Jason Dunford, a former Manchester City player, alleged yesterday that a paedophile ring was operating in professional football and was covered up as part of a conspiracy. As well as coaching at Crewe, Bennell had worked for Manchester City, Stoke and a number of junior teams in the North West. Mr Dunford, who was abused by Bennell at a holiday camp after winning a football competition, told BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme: “I believe there was a conspiracy and paedophile ring. There were people at those clubs who had a duty to look after boys coming through their system. I think Savile looks like a choirboy compared to this fellow.”
Chris Unsworth, 44, a former Crewe youngster who has also made allegations against Bennell, told the same BBC programme: “It could have been prevented but way back then there were no laws, you just went with it. “Everything we have been through has been brushed under the carpet and that is why we are here today. Hopefully others will come out and join us.” Paul Stewart, the former England footballer, also came forward this week to reveal he was abused by a youth coach.
Stewart, whose clubs included Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool, said he decided to go public after reading about the abuse suffered by Mr Woodward. The Government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) said it was monitoring the events with a view to opening an investigation.
An IICSA spokesman said: “It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to say more at this time, on what might be a live police investigation.” The inquiry may want to look at two suicides by footballers who were coached by Bennell. Gary Speed, the former Welsh football manager and Leeds United star who took his own life in 2012, had been coached by Bennell as a child and stayed at his house.
Bennell had also reportedly coached Alan Davies, a former Manchester United football player who killed himself in 1992. However, Speed’s father Roger told The Daily Telegraph in an interview published today he was certain his son had never been a victim of Bennell’s. Bennell has denied abusing Speed but has said that even if he had done so he would be unlikely to admit it. There is no evidence Bennell had abused Davies although one of Bennell’s victims said the coach had referred to Speed, Davies and himself as “favourites”.
Crewe Alexandra praised Woodward for his “courage” in speaking out but declined to comment on the allegations. Manchester City has said it is undertaking “a thorough investigation of any past links he [Bennell] might have had with the organisation”.
Newcastle United was put under the spotlight after a player went to the police claiming he had been sexually assaulted by George Ormond, a former coach at the club who has been jailed for six years for a string of convictions involving boys from the club’s youth system. Newcastle United said it was cooperating fully with the police.