Children being put at risk by flaws in policing of paedophile sports coaches

30th March, 2021 12:20 pm

Children are being put at risk by fundamental flaws in the policing of paedophile coaches in football and other major sports, a Telegraph Sport investigation has found.

Ten days after the publication of a bombshell report into football’s child sexual abuse scandal, survivors, MPs, athlete groups and even sports themselves have called for action to fill gaps in the system.

Telegraph Sport investigation into those gaps found:

  • Football, rugby and cricket are among the major sports not to publish a register of those banned from working with children, risking leaving offenders free to strike elsewhere
  • The lack of a sport-wide safeguarding body threatens inconsistent sanctions for transgressors
  • Some abuse risks going unpunished because failing to report it to police is not a criminal offence
  • At least 10 football clubs in the Championship and League One may need to alter their safeguarding provision to comply with recommendations of the Independent Review into Child Sexual Abuse in Football
  • The principle of double jeopardy for most types of abuse means offenders could walk free and deny victims justice.

The findings prompted abuse survivor Paul Stewart to lead calls for a safeguarding equivalent of UK Anti-Doping, for football and other sports to sign up to a national public register of coaches banned from working with children, and for changes to the law on mandatory reporting and double jeopardy.

Last week’s report by Clive Sheldon QC found there were still “a number of gaps” in safeguarding within the sport but made no recommendations about how to fill some of them to the dismay of those hoping it would lead to a major crackdown on child abuse.

Those gaps include the lack of sports which publish a register of those banned for safeguarding reasons, with only athletics, cycling and rowing confirming such information could be found on their websites.

The Football Association only announced last week that it had banned former Crewe Alexandra manager Dario Gradi indefinitely for safeguarding reasons, more than four years after suspending him.

That prompted concerns there had been nothing since 2016 to stop Gradi – who Sheldon cleared of serious wrongdoing but found he could have done more to prevent abuse – coaching youngsters outside of the FA’s jurisdiction.

The Sheldon report called for the FA to examine how such gaps could be “filled in” and Stewart said one way “without doubt” would be for it to sign up to a national public register of banned coaches or simply publish such sanctions itself.

“I don’t know why the FA wouldn’t do it,” said the former England, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool midfielder, who now delivers safeguarding training at professional clubs.

The Offside Trust survivors’ group added: “There can be no more secrecy. This is 2021. If a coach is banned from working with children, we should be told why. Otherwise, there is nothing to stop them moving on to be a danger somewhere else.”

Sarah Champion, the MP for Rotherham and former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, said: “Parents have a right to know if there is a potential risk to their child. I applaud those sports which publish a list of coaches banned for safeguarding reasons and fail to see why others refuse to do the same.”

The FA said it agreed with the Sheldon report that safeguarding gaps he highlighted “should be discussed with Government” but declined to comment on whether the solution should include publishing sanctions or a national public register.

However, the governing bodies for rugby, cricket, tennis, athletics, cycling, swimming, gymnastics, rowing, boxing, equestrian, triathlon, judo and canoeing all said they were open to such a register.

Some even expressed a willingness to defer responsibility for policing safeguarding to an equivalent body to UKAD, something endorsed by both Stewart and the British Athlete Commission, which said: “For safeguarding to be implemented effectively across sport, any potential loopholes must be closed. For this reason, the creation of an effective, independent agency, overseeing safeguarding across all sports, would be a positive step, and bring about a consistency and clarity from which athletes would benefit and be reassured.”

Analysis: The four changes that should be made to keep our children safe

By Ben Rumsby

1. A national public register of those banned from working with children

Of 23 of the country’s biggest sports contacted by the Daily Telegraph, only three – athletics, cycling and rowing – confirmed they published safeguarding sanctions. Those who said they did not –including football, rugby and cricket – said they shared details within sport and with other relevant authorities of anyone they barred from working with children.

But, as the Independent Review into Child Sexual Abuse in Football highlighted, a banned individual with a Football Association coaching qualification could set up a private coaching business and “parents and carers may assume that these individuals are coaching under the auspices of the FA, and may feel confident that appropriate safeguarding arrangements are in place due to the association with the FA, when that is not in fact the case”.

Publishing basic details about a safeguarding ban imposed on a coach would allow parents to check that individual’s status and also to alert the FA if it was being breached in any way. Some of the other sports who do not publicise such bans said they did not do so for legal reasons. However, more than dozen sports said they would be open to a sport-wide national public register of those banned for safeguarding reasons.

2. A safeguarding equivalent of UK Anti-Doping

Some of the same sports said they would be open to going further by endorsing the creation of a safeguarding equivalent of UKAD. That was after Telegraph Sport revealed in August that eight of Britain’s most successful sports would be open to the introduction of an ombudsman or equivalent body in the wake of the gymnastics abuse scandal.

The lack of a safeguarding equivalent of UKAD risks giving the impression that sport treats doping more seriously than athlete welfare. Such a body would have the advantage of centralising funding and expertise as well as imposing sanctions that would be sport-wide rather than sport-specific, making punishments consistent in nature. It would also avoid any perception of a conflict of interest when it comes to investigating successful coaches.

Steps have already been taken in this direction through the introduction by Sport England of a Safeguarding Case Management Service to assist national governing bodies (NGBs) in dealing with complaints and investigations fairly and independently. The Telegraph can reveal this is being expanded from nine organisations to up to 50 more NGBs.

3. Make it a criminal offence when sports officials fail to report abuse to the police

The introduction of so-called mandatory reporting has long been one of the main aims of many survivors of child sexual abuse and is being considered by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. There is now a mandatory reporting requirement within sports themselves, and those who fail to report abuse face punishment.

Opponents of criminalising such transgressors argue professional sanctions are a sufficient deterrent. But Paul Stewart is among those who disagrees. “I’ve looked into the reasons for and the reasons against and I think the reasons for it outweigh it,” the former England midfielder told the Telegraph. “Let’s sit round a table and find a way in which we can make it law and look at the criminality of it, look at what the sentences should be.

“We’re talking about children’s protection here, so we should go beyond what we are doing. In 2021, we should really be looking at doing something like that, shouldn’t we? It’s quite shocking in 2021, for me, that we can’t sit round a table, to be honest.”

The Government this month finally caved into pressure to criminalise sports coaches who have sex with 16- and 17-year-olds in their care and Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, said last week it would also keep mandatory reporting “under review”.

4. Exempt all forms of child abuse from the principle of double jeopardy

One of the most tragic outcomes from football’s child sexual abuse scandal was that six of those accusing one of the game’s most prolific paedophiles, Bob Higgins, of molesting them were denied justice due to the law on double jeopardy. Higgins had been due to stand trial in those cases in the early 1990s, but after the first of them collapsed, the remaining prosecutions were dropped.

Despite never being heard in court, the remaining five complainants were told four years ago that Higgins had been effectively acquitted of abusing them and that the principle of not trying someone twice for the same crime applied. Higgins also went on to commit abuse after being cleared. This has led to a major campaign for a change to the law on double jeopardy, for which there are already exemptions for “serious” crimes such as murder and rape.

Stewart said: “Some of the laws, they are bewildering, aren’t they, when you look at something like that? It does infuriate me because we’re talking about children here. Double jeopardy should not come into it when you’re talking about children’s protection.”

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