Emmet Ryan: 'Society can't simply take the easy way out and treat these as crimes of the past'

English football's child abuse scandal is becoming a matter of duty of care - in the past and in the here and now

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent @emmetjryan
2nd December, 2016
The former club of youth coach Barry Bennell Pic: Getty

With 350 former footballers having reported instances of child sex abuse to authorities in Britain, the scale and scope of the investigation into past crimes is only going to expand.

The criminal acts by the direct perpetrators will undoubtedly prove the key focal point of the investigation and the public coverage in the weeks and possibly months to come. As the information increases and the move towards more formal charges is made, the other aspect of these grotesque acts will come into play.

Who knew what - and when did they know it?

Football is more than a sport in England, it's part of the nation's social fabric. Youngsters with dreams of making the big time are put in the care of clubs across that country, with the understanding that the clubs in question will look after them. There is a justified expectation on the part of parents and a duty of care on those involved in the clubs.

The scale is such already that it's clear the argument of isolated incidents is well and truly out the window. It is beyond the scale of plausibility that there was not a single person in a single club across England that was aware of at least a single instance. The only debate is how many people knew about the criminal acts being carried out and what, if anything, was their action upon learning this?

When Andy Woodward came forward with his information of abuse at the hands of convicted abuser Barry Bennell, it set off a reaction that is shaking football heartlands to the core. Woodward's bravery in telling his story is not only beyond question, it may well turn out to be one of the most historically significant acts in the sport.

What has followed since his revelations are outpourings from Paul Stewart, Steve Walters, and David White. There are, at the time of publication, at least eight different police forces in Britain investigating historical abuses. The 350 reported cases are likely to increase and Operation Hydrant, the body that governs investigation into historical abuses, is focusing on this.

The scope must and will expand to those whose duty it was to ensure such occurrences were impossible

Clubs are announcing independent investigations of their own, Chelsea are looking into an alleged payment to hush up an allegation and the situation at Crewe Alexandra (where Woodward was a player when he was abused) remains heavily under the spotlight.

The FA, for its part, has said that clubs which are found to have hushed up allegations will face severe penalties. As governing body of the sport, it's the duty of the FA to do the fullest it can but there are also limitations. The criminal investigation into the duty of care side of matters, which is inevitable, is where the eye of the public must be focused.

It simply isn't enough to punish the abusers for their crimes. That addresses the direct action but not the cause of such rampant abuses of young people who simply wanted to play football. The scope must and will expand to those whose duty it was to ensure such occurrences were impossible. Those who were at fault for failing to act or acting in the interest of a mere sporting body, rather than an individual who suffered a criminal act.

To address the problem, to bring true justice to the likes of Woodward and so many more, the very culture that enabled these abusers to act without consequence must be challenged and changed.

This has to be about more than retribution. Crimes should be punished but stopping there misses a matter of necessity. Society can't simply take the easy way out and treat these as crimes of the past.

The very nature of how football operates, its structures with youth teams, must be assessed and changes made to ensure that when a young person goes to pursue their dream, they do so unhindered by such threats. That's a here and now issue, it's on us to ensure there is never again a situation where someone as brave as Andy Woodward needs to come forward in the future.

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