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England's soccer body investigates claims of sex abuse in youth programs

England's Football Association, which remained largely silent for almost two weeks as former players came forward with accusations of sexual abuse by coaches in the country's soccer development system, announced Sunday that it was broadening an internal investigation into the claims.

The Football Association, the governing body for soccer across England, said it had appointed Kate Gallafent, a lawyer with experience in sexual abuse cases, to oversee the internal investigation, which had not been revealed before. The Football Association also said it was working closely with the police in pursuing the claims.

At least six former players have said publicly that they were molested as boys in the youth programs, and the head of the English soccer players union said Sunday that nearly two dozen more former players had come forward privately. Until now, the Football Association had made little public comment on the revelations other than to say it had set up a telephone help line for victims of abuse.

"The internal review will look into what information the F.A. was aware of at the relevant times around the issues that have been raised in the press, what clubs were aware of, and what action was or should have been taken," the association said in a statement on Sunday.

The scandal has grown out of an interview with Andy Woodward, a former player with the lower-league Crewe Alexandra, that was published by the Guardian newspaper Nov. 16. In the article, Woodward said he had been sexually abused by Barry Bennell, who has been convicted on sexual abuse charges in Britain and in Jacksonville, where he pleaded guilty in 1995 to raping a British boy from a youth team he had escorted to the United States. Bennell worked as a scout and a coach for a number of clubs, including Crewe, across England's northwest during the 1980s.

Woodward, 43, said the abuse began when he was 11 and was invited to stay at Bennell's house. He said Bennell had silenced him during the years of abuse with threats of further violence and of undermining his prospective soccer career.

Woodward said Crewe had failed in its "duty to protect" those children under its care.

Four more former players have since said they had been victims of Bennell.

Steve Walters, another former Crewe player, said that reading Woodward's account had persuaded him to reveal that he had been abused for a year, until he was 14. David White, a former English national team player, and Jason Dunford recounted abuse or attempted abuse while playing for a junior team in Manchester called Whitehill that was run by Bennell. A fourth former player, Ian Ackley, said he had been raped "hundreds of times" while playing amateur soccer in Derbyshire.

The allegations against coaches have spread beyond Bennell. Paul Stewart, who played for Liverpool and England, said he had been abused by another coach for four years. And Sunday, Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, the players' union, told the BBC that as many as 20 players have come forward with information. Many, he said, have chosen to remain anonymous for now.

At least four police forces across the country — in Northumbria, Hampshire and Cheshire as well as the Metropolitan Police in London — have announced that they are conducting inquiries into sexual offenses in soccer clubs. Various clubs, including Manchester City, Newcastle United, Blackpool and Leeds United, have said they will cooperate with any inquiries.

Crewe's initial response to Woodward's story was to offer no comment. The club's long-standing technical director, Dario Gradi, who worked with Bennell, said he had been instructed by his superiors not to discuss the issue.

Only after a former director, Hamilton Smith, revealed Thursday that he had informed the club of his concerns about Bennell at the time did Crewe announce that it planned to set up an internal investigation to determine what, if anything, the club had known during the period when Bennell was accused of abusing young players.

Bennell worked with Crewe until 1992. He was first arrested two years later while working in Florida. In 1995 he pleaded guilty in Jacksonville to six counts of custodial sexual battery in exchange for four years in prison.

After his conviction in Jacksonville, Bennell was deported to England and convicted in 1998 on charges dating from 1978 to 1992, with another 22 charges left on file. He was jailed for nine years. In May 2015, Bennell was ordered to serve two more years for sexual offenses against a 12-year-old boy that authorities said dated to 1980.

In its statement on Sunday, the Football Association said it had begun its investigation "with acknowledgment that a wide-ranging inquiry may be required in time."

The accusations of abusing children echo those against other authority figures connected to powerful institutions, including Catholic priests, coaches in USA Swimming and Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State.

Woodward has suggested that Bennell's case could prove similar to that of Jimmy Savile, a British television personality who was found, after his death in 2011, to have committed many sexual crimes during a career that lasted decades. A three-year investigation of that case concluded, in a scathing 700-page report, that Savile's employers at the BBC had done little to stop his abuse of minors despite a history of complaints against him.

England's soccer body investigates claims of sex abuse in youth programs 11/28/16 [Last modified: Sunday, November 27, 2016 11:04pm]
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