English soccer players report years of sexual abuse, leading to fears of a cover-up
English soccer has been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal that’s seen hundreds of players come forward to detail historic abuse at the hands of coaches. Paul Stewart, one of the most high-profile players to come forward, says that telling his story on national television is not a “big magic wand” that will make 41 years of pain disappear, but if it helps just one person, it will be worth it.
Stewart played for some of England’s biggest clubs, including Liverpool, Manchester City, and Tottenham, and yet throughout his career — which also included being capped for his country — he carried with him the pain of being sexually abused every day for four years between the ages of 11 and 15.
Last week, the 52-year-old waived his right to anonymity by taking his story public. The abuse he suffered has had a huge impact on his life: He turned to drink and drugs, and despite being married with three children, he says he has been unable to hug his wife or tell his children he loves them.
On Wednesday, Stewart found out that the man who abused him — coach Frank Roper — had died in 2005. This news meant that he was finally able to talk about the man who had threatened to kill his family if he revealed the abuse.
“In the bigger scheme of things, [naming Roper] is really irrelevant,” Stewart told VICE News. “For me personally, dead or alive, he took my childhood away. I don’t want him to affect in any way the rest of my life, and I am going to try to make sure that he doesn’t.”
Stewart came forward after seeing former players Andy Woodward and Steve Walters speak out publicly about their abuse at the hand of youth coach Barry Bennell while playing for Crewe Alexandra. Stewart says Roper told him about Bennell abusing other boys, so he knew he had to come forward.
“I wanted to support the other guys who had come forward. I didn’t want this story to fade away into insignificance when I knew deep down there was a wider problem within the game at the time,” he said.
Since Stewart spoke out, several former players have come forward to talk about abuse by Roper in the 1980s. Stewart himself has been contacted by people from “all walks of life.”
“For that reason, and that reason alone, it has made a difference. Ultimately, if you can help one or one hundred, you have had the desired effect when you bared your soul on national TV.”
Since Woodward first spoke publicly about the abuse, police say that 350 people have come forward to report incidents of abuse, with reports from all parts of the country and at all levels of soccer – from grassroots to professional.
More than a quarter of all of the U.K.’s police forces are now actively investigating allegations of sexual abuse within the sport. The National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) set up a dedicated helpline for players affected by sexual abuse and in the first week it received over 800 calls.
“Helpline staff made 60 referrals to police or social services in the first three days,” the charity said in a statement. “This is more than triple the number of referrals made in the first three days of our Savile helpline, which opened in 2012.”
The huge number of players who have come forward over the last week to make allegations of sexual abuse, coupled with the fact this has never been widely reported before, has led some to suggest that there might have been a cover-up at some level of the game in England.
While announcing the appointment of Gareth Southgate as the new national manager, England’s Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn addressed the scandal, saying he does not believe there has been a cover up. “It will help uncover some issues that can’t happen again, but do I think there has been a cover-up? I doubt it.”
But on Friday former Chelsea player Gary Johnson came forward to claim that he was paid £50,000 by the Premier League club to not go public with allegations that he was sexually abused by the club’s former chief scout Eddie Heath.
“All their fans deserve to know the truth about what went on,” Johnson told the Daily Mirror. “I know they asked me to sign a gagging order and how many others are there out there? They may have paid others for their silence. I hope and pray no clubs are allowed to cover this up – no one should escape justice.”
Stewart told VICE News that the number of people coming forward is not a surprise to him: “I knew other people were being abused after me, and prior to me, because these people don’t just do it once do they?”
While he believes there are more checks in place today to prevent sexual abuse from happening, experience has taught him that paedophiles will always find a way because they are “very, very manipulative” and Stewart says he is “under no illusion it is still going on today.”
While everyone who has been in contact with Stewart personally has been supportive, there have been lone voices criticizing the players who came forward. In a series of tweets, former world darts champion and MBE Eric Bristow called the players “wimps,” suggesting they should just gone back to the person abusing them and “sorted that poof out.”
(a) Footballers bravely speak about childhood abuse they suffered
(b) Thousands of people express solidarity and sympathy
(c) Eric Bristow pic.twitter.com/VEjAvfy1PS
— Jeremy Vine (@theJeremyVine) November 28, 2016
Stewart said he didn’t even bother reading Bristow’s comments — which he has since apologized for — as he wants to focus on what really matters. “My reasons for doing it are for those that have suffered that may need help. I want them to come forward and get that help, and not go through the pain and suffering I have gone through.”
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