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UK police widen football sex abuse inquiry

British police have said they are widening the scope of an investigation into the sexual abuse of youngsters training to become professional footballers. A growing number of victims have broken their silence.

England Crewe Alexandra Stadion (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Rickett)

Crewe Alexandra, where some of the abuse is said to have taken place, was a center of excellence for youth development

Police on Friday said an investigation was underway after the publicity generated by former players sharing their stories had of abuse prompted other potential victims to come forward.

The allegations have so far centered mainly on Barry Bennell, a youth coach with Manchester City, Stoke City and Crewe Alexandra, who also coached several junior teams in northwest England.

However, police in the northern county of Cheshire said that other individuals were also now under suspicion. A number of leads came from call made to a telephone helpline set up by Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

"We can confirm that a growing number of disclosures have been made to Cheshire Constabulary, including referrals received from the NSPCC in relation to non-recent child sexual abuse linked to football," said a police statement.  

"These have included allegations made against more than one individual."

Mental scars run deep

Of the professional clubs at which Bennell worked, Crewe, in particular, was renowned as a center of excellence for converting talented but raw youngsters into complete professionals.

Barry Bennell Fußballlehrer (picture-alliance/empics)

Bennell has been jailed three times after being convicted of abusing boys

Three police forces have opened investigations after they were contacted about Bennell and other unnamed people. Major clubs Manchester City and Newcastle United have confirmed they are also helping authorities.

The number of individuals speaking about the abuse they suffered has grown. Former Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool striker Paul Stewart told media he had suffered daily abuse by a youth team coach.

"The mental scars led me into other problems with drink and drugs," Stewart told British tabloid the Daily Mirror on Wednesday.

Two more former professional footballers, Chris Unsworth and Jason Dunford, also came forward on Friday to tell of their own experiences of abuse. Unsworth told the BBC he had been "raped between 50 and 100 times."

"I was about nine," said Unsworth. "I didn't know what was going on to be fair. I knew where I wanted to get and I thought this is obviously what I've got to go through."

The first of the victims to speak openly was former professional Andy Woodward, who played for Sheffield United and testified anonymously in a 1998 court case against Bennell. Woodward first revealed his name in a front-page story in the Guardian newspaper two weeks ago.

England Fußballspieler Wayne Rooney (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Rain)

Rooney praised Woodward for his bravery in coming forward and encouraging others to do the same

England skipper urges victims to speak

Since then, other players have come forward to recount their stories of sexual abuse. A common theme appears to have been the willingness of parents to entrust their children's welfare entirely to football clubs, given the prospect of them becoming well-paid football stars.

Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney paid tribute to Woodward for breaking his silence.

"It's awful that some of my colleagues have suffered this way whilst playing the sport that I and they love," the England captain said. "Andy has been really brave to come forward. It's important that people know that it's okay to speak out, there is help available and that they don't need to suffer in silence."

Bennell was jailed in the US in 1994, and was convicted and imprisoned again in 1998 for offences that included the rape and abuse of boys. More recently, in 2015, he was again jailed for similar offences.