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UK child sex abuse scandal

British football abuse scandal widens

Andy Woodward was the first to publicly come forward about the abuse he suffered as a boy. Now 248 British football clubs have been implicated in a wide-ranging investigation into child abuse. Samira Shackle reports.

For as long as he can remember, Andy Woodward's dream was to be a professional footballer. He was 11 and playing for Stockport Boys when he came to the attention of football coach Barry Bennell (pictured above in a court artist sketch). Bennell talent-spotted boys aged nine to 14, across England's north-west and Midlands.

The young Woodward was accepted by Crewe, a team well known for developing young players. He was one step closer to achieving his dream.

But this was also when the nightmare started. Bennell invited Woodward to stay at his house on weekends. He began to sexually abuse him regularly, a situation which lasted until Woodward was 17.

Andy Woodward (photo: Getty Images/AFP/P. Ellis)

Former soccer player Woodward was the first to publicly come forward and speak out against Bennell

"Throughout my childhood, it affected me," Woodward, now 43, told DW.

"I was very reserved, I spent all my weekends at his house. The power he had was unbelievable. I didn't know where to turn or what to do because football was what I wanted to do and that's all I wanted to do."

"Your coach knows that, so takes that control and power," he added.

In 1998, Bennell was jailed for nine years after pleading guilty to 23 charges of sexually abusing six children. Woodward, who testified anonymously at the time, was one of his many victims at Crewe football club.

Bennell has been jailed three times for child abuse, including once in the US. Most recently, he was sentenced to two years in 2015 for a past sexual offense against a 12-year-old boy.

A prolific offender, Bennell is one of the coaches at the center of a child abuse scandal engulfing British sport. Operation Hydrant, a police hub set up in 2014 to deal with non-recent child abuse allegations, was already investigating scores of football clubs when Woodward decided to waive his anonymity in late 2015. He spoke publically about his abuse after 30 years of silence, and soon afterwards, other former footballers, such as Steve Walters, Chris Unsworth and Jason Dunford, also spoke out about being abused by Bennell.

Not just soccer, but also reports of abuse in rugby, gymnastics, tennis...

In the weeks that followed, the number of phone calls to Operation Hydrant and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a leading children's charity in the UK, skyrocketed. Suddenly, 248 football clubs were under investigation, with allegations flooding in about abuse in rugby, gymnastics, tennis, swimming and golf. Operation Hydrant has now identified 184 suspects and 526 potential victims (of whom 97 percent are male). Ed Smethurst, a lawyer acting for victims described it as a "tidal wave" of allegations.

Barry Bennell (picture-alliance/AP Photo/W. Dickey)

Bennell - here in a photo from 1995 - had been convicted on three separate occasions for abusing children

"You can never predict how many people will come forward, but perpetrators are drawn to settings where they can access children, so it's no surprise to us that it's happened in football and other sports," Kath Stipala, head of public affairs at the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, told DW. To date, 22 different sports have been implicated.

Sexual abuse in childhood leaves lifelong scars. Woodward had a degree of success as a professional footballer, playing for Bury, a football team in the north of England. Several times, he had to leave the pitch because of panic attacks.

"I never reached the potential I had because every time I got on the pitch it's always there with you, it sticks with you," he told DW.

"I didn't want to let go of my football and I used all my inner strength to keep carrying on - but with the length of time the abuse continued and the amount, unfortunately it did catch up with me. I just couldn't play anymore. Since then, I've had loads of trust issues and I find it hard to make friends because of that. I've been diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

Hush money?

Lawyers representing a new independent body, the Offside Trust, set up to help victims and their families, said that there have been numerous first-hand accounts from former and current footballers implicating people still involved in the game. Other victims have claimed that they were offered large sums of money by clubs to sign confidentiality agreements.

One high profile example of this was Gary Johnson, another footballer who waived his anonymity, who was paid £50,000 (59,000 euros; $63,000) by Chelsea to keep quiet about sexual abuse by Eddie Heath, a talent scout for the club in the 1970s.

"I don't think large numbers of people in football clubs have thought, 'I'm going to help someone who is raping kids' - it's a more general thing, a desire to wish it away with a more palatable explanation," explains Stipala. "You also have people at senior levels thinking 'that's going to be damaging, so let's sweep it under the carpet.' That is very negligent. Mandatory reporting [a legal change] would tackle people who are allowing someone they heavily suspect of abusing children to go uninvestigated and carry on doing it."

England Crewe Alexandra Sports Academy (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Rickett)

More and more former soccer players have come forward and told their stories of sexual abuse by youth team coaches

The Football Association is funding the NSPCC's special hotline for victims, and has set up an independent inquiry into abuse at different clubs. This is separate to Operation Hydrant's work, which involves police across the country investigating allegations.

Woodward, who still suffers from depression and anxiety, was overwhelmed by the response after he spoke out about his ordeal. It has given him a new sense of purpose. "Coming forward is one of the hardest things in the world to do, especially being a footballer and it being a 'man's sport'. But it's a different era now and there's things we can do, safeguarding, to make it safer for children. I want to deliver that and give these kids a chance."

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