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Player’s Harrowing Tale of Sexual Abuse Rocks Soccer in Britain

The nature and extent of the abuse has come as a shock to the country that invented modern soccer and is home to the Premier League, the richest and most widely watched league in the world. Just as troubling is the apparent reluctance at club level to act decisively to stop the abuse then, and more recently.

Two years ago, Chelsea, one of the richest clubs in the world, paid a former player, Gary Johnson, 50,000 pounds, about $ 63,000, in an agreement that stopped him from going public with his allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of a former Chelsea youth coach.

Four weeks ago, Mr. Woodward, who eventually became a defender for Crewe Alexandra, became the first professional soccer player to go public with his claims of abuse. Since then, at least 20 other former players have followed, and many more have contacted the police privately. A help line has fielded over 1,000 calls. At least 20 police forces across Britain have opened investigations into 83 suspects in cases involving about 350 possible victims and 98 soccer clubs from the amateur level to the Premier League.

In the words of Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association, the governing body that oversees much of soccer in England, it is “one of the biggest crises” in the sport’s history, one that has left Mr. Woodward and many others who suffered at the hands of coaches and officials permanently scarred.

At first, Mr. Woodward recalled in an interview last week, the opportunity to become a professional player seemed almost too good to be true. Mr. Bennell could spin a ball on his finger, flick it off his shoulders and rest it on his neck before catching it with his heel. “Like a magician,” Mr. Woodward said. The coach’s home, an isolated cottage on the edge of the Peak District in the middle of England, was the stuff of a boy’s dreams. There was a pool table and a jukebox and a monkey that would sit on Mr. Woodward’s shoulder and eat cucumbers. Mr. Woodward said the television was the biggest he had ever seen.


Barry Bennell in court in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1995. He served a prison sentence in the United States for raping a 13-year-old boy at a soccer camp. Credit Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

The first time Mr. Woodward stayed at the cottage, Mr. Bennell gave him a pair of soccer cleats to keep. The second time, he asked him to come into bed and play a game he called “follow me,” where they took turns touching each other, at Mr. Bennell’s direction.

The third time, the rapes started and they continued for four years: in a bunk bed with another boy lying above; in a car on the way to training; in youth hostels during soccer tournaments; and, occasionally, in Mr. Woodward’s own house, after Mr. Bennell had eaten dinner with Mr. Woodward’s family.

When Mr. Woodward resisted, he would be dropped from the next match and made to sit on the bench. “I can ruin your football tomorrow,” Mr. Bennell would tell him, warning: “Keep quiet or you’re finished.”

Mr. Woodward did keep quiet, until 1998, when the police knocked on his door and told him that Mr. Bennell faced charges of sexual abuse. Mr. Woodward became an anonymous witness in a case in which Mr. Bennell, now 62, was sent to jail for nine years on 23 charges of sexual abuse, including buggery, against six boys. Mr. Bennell had already served a prison sentence in the United States for raping a 13-year-old boy at a soccer holiday camp, and he was convicted again as recently as 2015.

Since then, Mr. Bennell has been living under an assumed name, but he was taken back into custody after Mr. Woodward went public with his story in The Guardian, a British newspaper, on Nov. 16.Mr. Bennell now faces eight counts of child sexual assault, the Crown Prosecution Service announced last month.

For years, Mr. Bennell and other pedophilic coaches appear to have been protected by powerful individuals at the clubs where they worked.

The manager of Crewe Alexandra when Mr. Woodward was being abused, Dario Gradi, was still employed as the club’s director of football until this last weekend. Mr. Gradi was suspended by the Football Association only after another former player said that when Mr. Gradi was assistant manager of Chelsea in the 1970s, he had visited the player’s parents to smooth over the sexual advances of another youth coach, Eddie Heath. Mr. Gradi, who in 1998 was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to soccer, could not be reached for comment.

In the past, when players tried to bring abuse to the attention of the soccer authorities, they found little sympathy.

The settlement between Chelsea and Mr. Johnson, who says he was also abused by Mr. Heath, who is now dead, came after Mr. Johnson tried in 2013 to tell the police and soccer authorities about the abuse, prompted by the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s actions. He was ignored every step of the way, Mr. Johnson says. Only last week did Chelsea’s leadership apologize to Mr. Johnson in person, after the club waived the condition that he remain silent.

The Heath problem has been an internal headache for Chelsea for some time, according to one lawyer familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a continuing investigation.


Mr. Woodward, playing for Bury in a league cup match against Manchester United, in 1998. Credit Reuters

The instinct to close ranks and protect the club is one of the reasons Richard Scorer, a lawyer at Slater and Gordon who has worked on sexual abuse cases for 20 years, says he believes that the scandal in soccer will snowball. His firm represented abuse victims in care homes in the mid-1990s, in the Catholic Church in the late 1990s, and, more recently, Mr. Johnson. “Professional football unites all the risk factors,” he said.

Like priests, soccer coaches have easy access to children and the trust of parents. But they also have the opportunity for intimate contact with children in showers, changing rooms and on tours.

Above all, coaches have a relationship with their players characterized by what Mr. Scorer called “near absolute power.”

“They are the gatekeepers of dreams,” he said.

Mr. Bennell always had two boys to stay for the weekend and sometimes three. During the day, he played soccer with them, took them to matches and treated them to meals at McDonald’s. At night, he showed them scary movies to frighten them and then pull them close.

Mr. Bennell had a nunchaku — a weapon made of two short bars with a chain in the middle — that he liked to show off. He made the boys hold a newspaper and then split it in two with the chain. “What we have is special,” he would say. “Don’t ruin it.”

Mr. Woodward, dark-haired and introverted, was his favorite. “He would always pick the soft ones with the quiet parents who were less likely to challenge him,” Mr. Woodward recalled.

Mr. Bennell would come for dinners at his home and wink at him across the table. Sometimes he would stay over in the room next to his parents’ bedroom. Mr. Woodward’s mother would ask her son why he was so quiet when his coach visited.

When Mr. Woodward was 14, Mr. Bennell began seeing his 16-year-old sister. Two years later, he married her. It is a subject Mr. Woodward cannot bear to talk about except to say that his sister left Mr. Bennell in 1998, the year his former coach went to prison and he finally mustered the courage to tell his family about the years of abuse.

Coming forward has been a relief, said Mr. Woodward, who has been told he has post-traumatic stress disorder and who has tried to take his life several times. His soccer career ended because of recurring panic attacks on the field. “I was playing under a cloud,” he says today.

For 12 years, he worked for the police, but he was recently dismissed after a disciplinary tribunal over his having had a relationship with the adult sister of a victim of a crime.

Even now, age 43, when the soccer results are read out on the radio and his old club is mentioned, he says his stomach turns. He has never returned to Crewe, though it is less than an hour’s drive from his house.

Correction: December 13, 2016

A picture caption with an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a 1998 match in which Andrew Woodward played. Mr. Woodward played for Bury against Manchester United, not against Old Trafford, which is the name of Manchester United’s home stadium.

Source: NYT > World

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