The long-awaited Sheldon review into child sexual abuse in football makes disturbing reading. While the abuse is historic, the report is clear that lessons can still be learned. There are some strong recommendations about safeguarding training from Board level to the young people and their parents, about establishing a child-first culture and about developing greater transparency and accountability.
And while there was no evidence that before 1995 the FA knew of a systemic problem, there is serious criticism that they were too slow to act to take safeguarding seriously between 1995 and 2000, and te report states: ‘These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse’.
There was a culture in the sport that nothing was done without concrete evidence or specific allegations of abuse. In the sections about some of the most serious abusers, the report found evidence of rumours circulating among staff, and that some of the wrongdoing was likely to have been witnessed.
Once again, an inquiry reveals that someone should have spoken up. The report suggests staff and officials were naïve or failed to act on the rumours, and there was nowhere for young people to raise their concerns.
Whistleblowing policies can complement safeguarding – and encourage people to act on a perceived risk, without waiting for evidence to be confirmed, or knowing all the detail. At Protect, our definition of whistleblowing is intentionally broad and we know from calls to our Advice Line, concerns can range from a wide spectrum, from major to minor, but all concerns matter and all are to be handled and dealt with. We agree with the “seeds of doubt” approach now being developed in sport which ensures that potential child abuse is investigated as early as possible.
While children in sport need to be listened to and channels established so that they can speak out, staff channels too must be clear. There are recommendations in the report that the spot checks carried out at grassroots clubs should include ensuring coaches and parents know how to report concerns and where to whistle blow if their concerns are not appropriately dealt with.
For much of the period of the review, there was no guidance on child protection matters, staff and officials were not aware of the issues, and there were no channels to raise concerns. That is changing in football, but as the report concludes “determined abusers can only be stopped by the vigilance of those working with them”.