Abuse in football- not such a beautiful game?

by Alison Lobb

It’s been reported this week that the number of football child abuse suspects has been put at more than 250.

Over the last year, there have been gruelling reports in the media about abuse in football clubs, with harrowing tales from those who suffered at the hands of sports coaches and others.  The number of reports and the scale of abuse uncovered seemed to grow by the day.

Whilst shocking, it is not altogether surprising that abuse on this scale has been uncovered in that type of environment.  In the 1950s through to the early 1990s, paedophiles operated in children’s homes throughout the country.  I acted for many of the survivors of this abuse and heard many distressing stories of their suffering, whether physical, sexual or emotional, or, more likely,  a combination of all three. I saw at first hand the effect that these experiences had on many men (and some women) who had lived with the psychological consequences their entire adult lives. 

With large numbers of children incarcerated in a controlled environment, this was an ideal hunting ground for an adult who was inclined to that type of abusive behaviour; where they could inflict sexual and physical abuse on children who were powerless to do anything to prevent them, and were not normally believed if they dared to complain.  In those cases of course, many of the children concerned either had no supportive family to turn to, or already had a record of bad behaviour which meant they were unlikely to be believed if they made any form of complaint.  Managers were often involved themselves, or turned a blind eye to what was going on.  It was only when complaints were made and taken seriously that an investigation was started and eventually uncovered a horrendous level of abuse which impacted on a generation of children who were supposedly being “cared for”.

Once that abuse scandal was uncovered, then measures were put in place to ensure that as far as possible such behaviour could not happen again, with an emphasis on safeguarding children, the provision of advocates, and legislation with regard to safeguarding and whistleblowing.  Local Authorities and charities knew what they were looking for and rigorous checks were put in place before anyone was employed to care for children. Large scale children’s homes have since been replaced by smaller environments with more therapeutic input, and whilst abuse in these type of facilities can never be guaranteed to have been eradicated, there are enough checks and methods of inspection to mean that it would be a lot more difficult for such acts to take place today.

However, abusers do not go away, and it was inevitable that these types of people would be attracted by a new environment where children were accessible.  No matter what form abuse takes, it is never about the physical acts involved, it is about power.  What better setting could there be therefore for the abuser, than the sporting situation where a child is anxious to please and dependent on the adult to give a good report of them, and potentially open doors for their long term future.  It could happen in any sport, but football, with the sheer numbers of young people taking part and the potential for future success which many youngsters dream of, in hindsight, is the perfect breeding ground for such behaviour.

We must salute the bravery of those who finally broke ranks and told their tale.  Over my many years of experience dealing with survivors of abuse in children’s homes I have met many such people, and their courage is admirable.  I have also met many who have experienced abuse and have tried to tell those in authority, family members or friends, only to be disbelieved and indeed, sometimes accused of telling lies. For them, that is often the most devastating aspect of the whole unpleasant situation. Often the offending adults are plausible and popular and have a store of ready made tales to explain away things that children may have “made up” about them.

So a scandal has been uncovered in football, and no doubt will continue to run and be the subject of a major investigation.  What now for those abused?  Many of them will have come forward with a sense of relief, in the knowledge that they will finally be believed. Some of them may have never spoken to anyone at all about their experiences. Most of them will want to feel vindicated, will expect a full investigation and an admission that these events occurred.  They will hope for an apology from those who maybe should have known and looked into this earlier, especially where complaints were made at the time.  Some of them, though not many, will come looking for compensation, but that is unlikely to be their main driving force.  Something like this, which affects someone psychologically, perhaps for the rest of their life, can not be solved by money. 

When acting for these survivors, that is quite a difficult issue to address.  The law is not set up for them to get any result other than compensation for assault and the associated losses.  You can not bring court proceedings to sue for an admission or an apology, but rather you need to ask a court to award something tangible in your favour, and that can only be represented by money. Often, therefore, making a claim for compensation in these cases is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  Survivors will make claims to get their cases out there into the open, in the knowledge that a successful claim will ensure their legal fees are paid for pursuing the matter, and in the hope that by doing so they will obtain “justice” and that a payment will demonstrate an admission of guilt by the body responsible.  It is not the money they want, it is what the payment represents that is important.

Many of these survivors therefore will have no option but to claim compensation in order to achieve some form of closure, and will have to accept that in doing so, unless the FA accept responsibility and make it easier for them, they are committing to a long hard road of litigation.  In some of the cases where I acted for claimants in the group actions in respect of the North West Children’s Homes for example, one claim took nearly 20 years to resolve.  That is a very extreme case, and the group action was in the forefront of developing the law in this area, but the wheels of justice move slowly, and defendant insurance companies in these cases usually fight very hard to avoid having to pay out on claims.

What would help everyone, the survivors, their families, their legal teams, and even the FA and their insurers, would seem to me to be the creation of a framework to apply for compensation with as little difficulty as possible, a little like the scheme set up in Ireland for their children’s home claims, the Irish Residential institutions Redress Board.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.  A standard tariff of compensation and levels of legal fees, could be agreed if necessary, and claimants would simply have to prove that they suffered abuse and the levels of the same, in order to claim, and criteria could be set for that.  Sensible?  Yes I think so.  Workable?  - it should be, given the Irish example.  Will it happen?  That can only depend upon the determination of those involved, and the government, to make it work, and not try and make life more difficult, which is what has often happened in the past.  Making it difficult for people to get results does not make them go away – it just makes them fight harder and come out more scarred when they eventually achieve the result, and that can’t be beneficial to our society.

Read more about Alison Lobb here