LONDON – English soccer's governing body launched a review Sunday into an escalating child sex-abuse scandal to discover what professional clubs knew about crimes being committed by coaches and what action should have been taken at the time.
No such investigation was launched by The Football Association after Barry Bennell, a coach at the center of the scandal who was linked to Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra, was first convicted in the 1990s in both the United States and England for molesting players.
It has taken former victims of Bennell and other coaches to waive their anonymity over the last two weeks to bring a fresh light on abuses they suffered while trying to break into professional soccer. The players' union said more than 20 players had called them with allegations of abuse.
"With the helpline it's a matter whether they wish to come out publicly or remain anonymous," Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor told Sky News television. "This is centering for the moment on clubs Crewe Alexandra, Blackpool, Manchester City, Stoke, Leeds United and then, in the northeast Newcastle United. It would be naive to think there won't be clubs as well in all areas."
Four police forces across England, including in London, have opened investigations after being contacted about Bennell and other unnamed individuals.
"At this time, with acknowledgement that a wide-ranging inquiry may be required in time, we are working closely with the police to support their lead investigations and must ensure we do not do anything to interfere with or jeopardize the criminal process," the FA said.
Lawyer Kate Gallafent, who has experience working on child protection issues in sports, has been brought in by the FA to look into the abuse allegations and "make recommendations in order to seek to ensure these situations can never be repeated."
"The internal review will look into what information the FA was aware of at the relevant times around the issues that have been raised in the press, what clubs were aware of, and what action was or should have been taken," the FA added in a statement.
Claims have also emerged that clubs in England agreed settlements with players who suffered sexual abuse in exchange for confidentiality about the cases.
"I find it incredible if clubs have been paying these lads to be quiet," said Taylor, who has been involved with the PFA since 1972.
The renewed focus on the ordeals suffered by footballers comes amid an official inquiry in Britain into decades of alleged child sexual abuse by powerful figures in society.
The inquiry was set up following the 2011 death of entertainer Jimmy Savile, after which dozens came forward to say he had abused them. Subsequent revelations have implicated entertainers, clergy and senior politicians and the inquiry aims to find out whether British public agencies — including the BBC, churches and political parties — had neglected or covered up allegations of child sex abuse from the 1970s to protect politicians and others in power.
"We, as a country, are now having to deal with the legacy of non-recent sexual abuse and the thousands of allegations that we are now seeing across the country," said chief constable Simon Bailey, lead officer on child protection issues at the National Police Chiefs' Council. "We are receiving reports of abuse in all sorts of different institutions.
"I am not in the least bit surprised that we are now seeing the lid lifted on exploitation within the world of football and I suspect there will be other sporting governing bodies — again in the next few days and weeks — who will come forward and who will identify the fact that they have similar problems."