Friday 27 April 2018

Top clubs made secret payments to buy silence of abuse victims

Andy Woodward (bottom), Steve Walters (right), Paul Stewart (left) and David White (top) were the first to come forward
Andy Woodward (bottom), Steve Walters (right), Paul Stewart (left) and David White (top) were the first to come forward

Robert Mendick in London

LEADING football clubs made secret payments to buy the silence of young players sexually abused by coaches.

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 as the growing scandal threatens to engulf the sport.

The crisis intensified last 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 an criminal inquiry into abuse at clubs in its area.

Yesterday, 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 a 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 spoke out 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 said 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.”

Mr Woodward said he would be disgusted if clubs had been buying off victims in return for silence.

“I’d be mortified if that were the case,” said Mr Woodward, who was sexually assaulted by Bennell over a four-year period.

Mr Woodward said he was unaware of Crewe paying compensation to 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.

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 told the BBC: “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 programme: “It could have been prevented but way back then there were no laws, you just went with it.

Paul Stewart, the former England footballer whose clubs included Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool, spoke out after reading of the abuse suffered by Mr Woodward.

A UK government abuse inquiry is monitoring events and  may want to look at two suicides by footballers who were coached by Bennell: Welsh manager Gary Speed, who willed himself in 2012; and Manchester United player Alan Davies, who killed himself in 1992.

Crewe Alexandra praised Mr Woodward for his “courage” 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 co-operating fully with the police.

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