Two weeks ago, retired British professional soccer player Andy Woodward stepped out from the shadows, telling the Guardian newspaper in an extensive interview that he was raped hundreds of times as a child by serial pedophile Barry Bennell, a former elite youth soccer coach who used his power and prestige in the sports world to lure, manipulate and sexually abuse his players decades ago.
What was shocking about Woodward’s raw account was not the identity of his abuser, for Bennell had been convicted of raping him decades ago. It was the former player’s speculations that Bennell may have victimized hundreds of other boys like him — and that the sexual abuse of players by coaches in the English youth soccer network was far more widespread than anyone in the 1980s and 1990s knew.
Around the country, other former players, now men, read Woodward’s words.
Then they started stepping forward themselves.
Now, dozens have reported to authorities and alleged in media interviews that Bennell and other coaches sexually abused them as boys, casting a large and darkening cloud over the entire English soccer enterprise. The growing case has drawn comparisons to the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Penn State football program in the United States in 2011.
On Monday, Bennell, 62, was hospitalized after police responded to a “fear for welfare incident,” authorities told the Associated Press.
The next day, on Tuesday, he was arrested for the fourth time in three decades for crimes related to his serial pedophilia in the 1980s. He was charged with eight counts of sexual assault, the Crown Prosecution Service said in a statement, which encouraged onlookers to allow him a fair trial, despite his previous convictions.
The most recent charges only highlight what his accusers have alleged in recent weeks — that through manipulation and intimidation, Bennell preyed on young boys for years before anyone had the courage to come forward. Some victims have even alleged that the clubs that employed Bennell knew of his wrongdoing, but did not report them to authorities.
“I believe there was a conspiracy and pedophile ring,” Jason Dunford, a youth team player with Manchester City, told the BBC on Friday in an interview about his own allegations against Bennell. “There were people at those clubs who had a duty to look after boys coming through their system.”
Bennell had been working with youth players for nearly 20 years before he was first prosecuted, in 1994.
The coach had escorted a group of 17 players, ages 11 to 15, from their home in England to the United States, where they played other youth leagues in Florida for the summer. The first team was there from May to July before another group of boys flew to Florida to replace them.
Bennell, a renowned and respected talent scout, stayed behind and waited.
By then the middle-aged Bennell had made a career of wowing young boys and their parents with his exceptional soccer skills, promising them opportunities to train with him and, if they worked hard enough, to earn a spot in the world of professional soccer. Trips like the one to Florida would increase those chances. The parents — and their children — trusted him.
But upon the team’s return to England, one 13-year-old boy revealed something disturbing: Bennell had spent the Florida trip sexually abusing him.
It was the first break in a case that eventually would reveal a long history of sexual abuse by Bennell. He served three years in a U.S. prison after pleading guilty to custodial sexual battery for the Florida abuse, then was deported back to England, where more allegations from six former players, including Woodward, landed him in prison again, in 1998. Nearly two decades later, in 2015, an English court again sentenced Bennell, who had changed his name, to two more years in prison for abusing a 12-year-old boy in 1980.
After Bennell’s first conviction in Florida, details of the coach’s grooming methods came out in court and newspaper articles. He would praise the boys and grant them special access to professional training facilities and games, invite them to his home for holidays or summer breaks. Then he would touch them, at practice facilities or in his bedroom, luring them with frightening ghost stories that made the boys too scared to sleep alone.
Although the charges and prison time stemmed from allegations made by at least eight boys, their identities were kept secret. Publicity was minimal. The true scope of Bennell’s crimes — and possibly those of other youth coaches from that time period — have yet to be fully explored.
But this month, when Woodward spoke out in the Guardian, other victims, emboldened by their former teammate, started to talk, including Manchester City’s David White and Crewe Alexandra’s Steve Walters, who say Bennell sexually abused them.
“All these years, I’ve had this secret inside me,” Walters told the Guardian. “But I have to let it all out now. It’s the only way. I want closure and I know, for a fact, this is going to help me move on. It’s been unbearable but, just from reading the article from Andy, it already feels like a massive burden off my shoulders. I have to do this, and I just hope it will help bring more people forward, too.”
A fourth former professional player, Paul Stewart, who played for the Tottenham Hotspur in London and for Liverpool, has told the Daily Mirror that a different coach, whom the tabloid did not name, abused him for four years after promising to “make him a star.” The Guardian reported last week that two players have independently told the newspaper another soccer coach, who was not named, abused them.
These high-profile admissions have led to a flood of private ones. Last week, Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association, told the Associated Press that eight players contacted him in a 24-hour period about going public with abuse allegations. By Monday, at least five police forces across England had opened investigations of sexual abuse in soccer after being contacted about Bennell and other unnamed people, the AP reported. One police department based near Crewe in Cheshire and Manchester said that 11 people contacted them last week with allegations against more than one person.
“They have been very courageous in coming forward after suffering in silence for years,” Bennett told the AP on Friday. “I think the dam has just been busted, the guys who have come forward have been a catalyst.”
A fifth abuse victim, David Lean, who played for a reserve team, was the person at the center of the case that put Bennell behind bars for the third time in 2015. Like Woodward, Lean thinks Bennell could have victimized hundreds of boys, he told Sky News, adding that when he initially told authorities, “no one wanted to listen.”
“I am angry because I started this process and no one listened to me, and a footballer comes forward and everybody listens,” Lean told Sky News. “But at the same time, I am ecstatic [Bennell] is going to get what he deserved, and everyone who comes forward is being very, very brave.”
Accusations like Lean’s, that there was a lack of urgency by authorities and the Football Association to dig further into Bennell’s past, have members of Parliament calling for inquiries.
“The FA needs to look back to see were mistakes made in the past,” MP Damian Collins told the BBC. “Were clues overlooked? Was not enough done to investigate a problem that they may have been perceived?”
On Sunday, the Football Association appointed an independent attorney to oversee an internal review, ESPN reported, assessing “what information the FA was aware of at the relevant times, what clubs were aware of, and what action was or should have been taken.”
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