My coach, the child abuser


At the current count as I write, eleven men have now contacted Cheshire police to report sexual abuse committed against them by Barry Bennell and/or other paedophile abusers from the world of professional football. Everyone who understands the dynamics of these cases fully expects the reports to keep coming. Once the seal has been broken, the lid will rarely go back on the jar.

When I was around 11 to 13, I played in a kids football team which in one respect was very, very different to Whitehill FC or Crewe Alexandra Juniors, where Bennell first met Andy Woodward, David White and other boys he abused. They were a hugely talented group, some of whom who would go on to play for top professional clubs and even the national team. We were abject rubbish. Really. If the circumstances were different I could tell you some hilarious stories about our incompetent blunders. Right now I don’t feel like laughing.

We did, however, share one significant detail. As with them, our coach was a serial and prolific child abuser.

I can say that now because he’s been convicted and imprisoned, on two separate occasions, of offences committed back in the 1980s. I considered naming him here – he has no entitlement or right to privacy, dignity or discretion, but the truth is I can’t face personalising it too much. I saw him last year, at a funeral of all places, and he was a broken, pathetic, shell of an old man.  He never looked me in the eye nor even tried. All things considered, I’d rather just let him rot away.

To be clear, he never abused me, beyond a bit of excessively physical horseplay, perhaps. Others were less fortunate.  Besides the football club he was also a scout leader and worked as a janitor, sometimes in sports centres, sometimes in schools. With hindsight there were so many alarm bells ringing that he might as well have had a T-shirt with CHILD MOLESTER branded across the front.

Despite the football pitches having their own changing rooms with showers, he rented a cellar over the road and made us change there. He had his own cine camera and 8mm projector and would occasionally arrange film nights where he’d invite boys to watch movie reels with an AA or even (most excitingly) an X-certificate rating. And of course he had his ‘special boys’ the ones who were invited to his flat, the ones who were bought presents and treats. The ones who were always slightly evasive about what went on when the gang weren’t around.

Now, at this point you are probably asking yourself how he was able to get away with it (and he did, to my knowledge, for at least a decade but I’d be astonished if it wasn’t a lot longer.) Part of the answer is that those were more innocent – or more accurately, more naïve – times.  This was before there was much public understanding of child abuse and paedophilia, child molesters were strange men who shouted at you out of cars to offer sweets or to come and see some puppies.  They weren’t well-liked, trusted, church-going scout leaders and volunteer sports coaches.

But here’s the kicker. We knew. We always knew.

We told each other stories and rumours and gossiped about what he got up to. There was the kid who giggled and told us about the time he had been offered cans of Coke and Mars Bars in exchange for showing his willie.  We knew there was something a bit off with the boys who spent Saturday afternoons at his flat after football matches.  There were always stories about something that had happened in a tent at a scout camp the year or two before.

And yet, at the same time, we knew this was going on in the exact same way that we knew FOR A FACT that Bruce McKillop had definitely seen a UFO over Kinnoull Hill one night and we knew there was DEFINITELY a shop in Dundee where you could buy nudey books for 10p and the man didnae even ask how old you were and that’s nae nae nae kidding.

In the years since, I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t tell anyone about the rumours, tell anyone what I knew or what I suspected. Just maybe someone could have intervened. Just maybe I could have said something at the time which could have saved any number of boys from god knows what. But the answer is really pretty simple. I didn’t tell because I was a kid. The adult world, particularly the adult world of sexuality and all that rude stuff was a mystery. I didn’t really know that what was going on was not normal, it was all just part of the strange spectrum of what grown-ups would get up to.

I now have less sympathy for the adults around us at the time, the other team coaches, scout leaders, church members, sports centre staff and all the rest. Because if we kids suspected, guessed or knew, then I can be damned sure that they did too.  Of course they didn’t have proof. I very much doubt anyone ever opened a door and happened upon a rape. I’m sure they told themselves that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions and how awful it would be to make an accusation and for it to turn out to be false. They probably didn’t even know who to report to, what to say, how are you meant to react to rumours?

But deep down they knew. Someone knew. Someone always knows.

This is the lesson from the Catholic Church. This is the lesson from Savile at the BBC. If the Football Association, Crewe Alexandra and the other clubs involved ever get around to fully and properly investigating what happened to the boys entrusted to the care of Bennell, then I do not doubt that they will learn that there too, someone knew. They might not have had proof. They might not have known what to do. But they knew. Someone always knows.

In the years since, I’ve also asked myself what could have prevented the abuse from happening and there is one answer that I return to again and again.  It is not just about structures and systems and checks. A determined offender can too easily find ways to game any system. It is not even about strict child protection policies, reporting policies or any of the other developments we have seen in the past 20 years or so – welcome and essential though they are.

The one thing which I believe could have helped us as kids, which perhaps could have saved some of his young victims from their horrific experiences, would have been knowledge and power. That bastard was able to rape and molest his way through my friends and team-mates, in large part, because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know what healthy sexuality was and we didn’t know what abusive sexuality was. We didn’t have the knowledge to interpret what was going on and we didn’t have the language to describe what was going on.

My own kids now spend most of their spare time in sports and fitness activities. We trust them to the care of adults we barely know, for many hours every week. There is no way we were going to allow our kids to be sheltered, to be wrapped in cotton wool from the world. But from a very early age they have known the underpants rule. They have known that no adult should ever tell them to keep a secret. They have known that they will never, ever get in trouble if they tell us that a grown-up has been rude or made them feel uncomfortable or hurt them, whoever that adult might be, however close, however friendly to the family, however trusted.

The sad truth is that none of us can ever guarantee that every child will be safe from abuse, safe from harm. What we can do is give them the strength, the knowledge, the confidence to keep themselves as safe as possible.

I don’t know what will come out from the revelations around professional football. I sincerely hope the men now coming forward can find some measure of peace, justice or healing.

I do know what the world of football owes to them, owes to my childhood friends and team-mates, and that is to investigate where we went wrong and learn, learn, then learn some more. We cannot protect the children of the past. We can just possibly protect some in the future.

Comments

  1. Chancellor of the Exchequer says

    It’s everywhere, yet so widely ignored. We have one living on our street right now(non-convicted.) Everyone knows it and he’s been reported but the police say they need physical evidence to do anything.

  2. lelapaletute says

    I think the second thing you tell your children is the absolute fundamental thing. No adult should ever be asking a child to keep a secret with them. If they do, it’s because the adult has done something bad (or quite possibly needs some outside help themselves), almost invariably. Secrecy is toxic, and I hate the thought that some children feel like they have absolutely no-one they can trust and talk to.

    I think these latest victims to come to light are being incredibly brave to speak up, especially as men, especially as men who exist in the highly macho culture of sport where to self-identify as a victim of sex abuse, and at the hands of a man, will inevitably carry a particular stigma. I hope they will be believed, and be shown understanding and support, and receive justice. That is what every victim needs and deserves.

  3. Phil says

    @Chancellor of the Exchequer

    that seems reasonable, I don’t want people sent to jail on the strength “well we all know he did it!”

  4. Phil says

    maybe its because I’m a millennial but I never got this thing about not going to adults with troubling rumours. When I was 12 somebody started a (I likely false) rumour that our PE teacher lost his last job because he’d gone into the girls changing rooms, as soon as I heard that I went and told the deputy head.

  5. 123454321 says

    We used to have a female teacher (not a PE teacher) who frequently used to walk through the boys changing rooms ON PURPOSE for all ages from 11 through to 16!! looking into the shower area and making all sorts of jovial and flirtatious remarks to the lads, some of whom played along, some of whom just ignored her, and some who (I was in this bracket) were pretty much outraged that she could get away with such a thing. We all knew that the male teachers were barred with outright clarity from the girls’ changing room and shower area. I often wonder whether female teachers still get away with the same thing. We all focus on male perpetrators and so often overlook the female ones.

  6. mostlymarvelous says

    The one thing which I believe could have helped us as kids, which perhaps could have saved some of his young victims from their horrific experiences, would have been knowledge and power. That bastard was able to rape and molest his way through my friends and team-mates, in large part, because we didn’t know any better.

    Absolutely. My kids are now in their mid 30s, so their primary school education on these topics was over 20 years ago. The woman running the program told all of us parents that the new-revised-all bright and shiny curriculum was no longer about “stranger danger”. It was about healthy relationships with adults among other things. No secrets. The only secrets allowed are good secrets – like what you made as a gift for mummy’s birthday – that you don’t intend to keep secret for very long anyway.

    Most importantly, she pointed out that previous programs – despite the limitations of the focus on stranger danger and all the rest of it – had made a huge difference to children’s lives. At that time, early 90s, they already had research showing huge generational differences in children’s experience of sexual abuse. Men who were then aged less than 30, born after 1960, reported less than half the rate of childhood abuse that men aged over 60, born before 1930, did.

    Quite apart from kids learning that they are not obliged to do anything and everything that an adult tells them, simply knowing that what an adult says is (a) sexual and (b) wrong is enough for some kids to know that it’s not their own fault if something bad happens and that, given both opportunity and a moment of courage, they might be able to report.

    On the other hand, the Royal Commission in Australia is telling us that it’s a toss-up whether parents, teachers, social workers, local police officers will believe a kid who reports. Even when they do believe and support the child, whether that adult will or won’t be believed or supported in their turn when they go to relevant authorities is also a pretty shaky prospect.

    For the time being, having a bit of faith in sunlight as the best disinfectant might be all we have to go with. The more people report about their own childhood experiences, the more likely it is that children now moving into schools, churches, sports and other organisations will be more protected from such predatory behaviour than the generations that preceded them.

  7. Carnation says

    Ally’s experiences are not unusual and raise some difficult questions.

    What can be done?

    What can be done to increase the essential participation of men in the lives of children, whilst protecting those children from the abuse perpetrated by a tiny minority?

    What measures will put men off? How can the spectre of suspicion be erased from the good intentions of the vast majority, because of the actions of a tiny minority?

    Children need more men in their lives. Men need children in their lives. Society needs it too.

    Everyone needs protection.

    I don’t have many answers, beyond a definitive erring on the side of caution.

    Does anyone have anything sensible to add?

  8. That Guy says

    @ Carnation- Honestly, I don’t know if there’s any sensible solution.

    Like Ally says, determined offenders will find some way to game the system, any move to introduce more men into the life of children is likely to draw a disproportionate amount of said offenders, while currently the suspicion of men in the life of children may deter otherwise keen volunteers.

    A little statistics might be helpful to understand the scale of CSE and what can better be done, but because of top grade vermin like Eric Biristow (Massive Bastard Extraordinaire) this won’t be an easy task.

    I can’t comment on the gender disparity or difference between male and female CSE offenders, but at first flush it would seem that current measures can be broadly categorised into “sensible” and “not so sensible”

    Sensible- Extensive vetting and background checks of people responsible for the care of children (disclosure, etc)

    Not so sensible- BA’s much maligned policy of not letting unaccompanied minors be seated next to adult men. (I could be wrong!)

    I think there has to be some kind of resolution, women child sexual offenders do exist, yet that doesn’t stop women being accepted (and often pushed!) to childcare style roles.

    With men, it’s probably a case of finding the appropriate scales I suppose. Oh, and smashing the patriarchy.

  9. Carnation says

    @ That Guy

    “I think there has to be some kind of resolution, women child sexual offenders do exist, yet that doesn’t stop women being accepted (and often pushed!) to childcare style roles.”

    Just putting this out there, but there have been initiatives aimed at getting more men into childcare – not very successful, but it’s happened.

    I wonder if a concerted effort into getting more men involved and then train them in a certain way to spot potential CSE, rather than investigate them to see if they’re a risk (though obviously this would still happen)?

  10. Ogvorbis: I have proven my humanity and can now comment! says

    But here’s the kicker. We knew. We always knew.

    We told each other stories and rumours and gossiped about what he got up to.

    I come at this from the other side. In my Cub Scout den (all ranks, about 20 kids), some of us were abused, some were not (and this was a small group of kids — there were four boys in my fourth grade class, with a total class size of 16). I sometimes lay awake at night, wondering if the ones who were not chosen knew what was going on when his wife took all the den but one kid on a three-hour hike. Or just a few of us went with him, and his wife, to look for birds at a stock tank. I still don’t know if they knew — were they like zebras, watching as a lion took a member of the herd, being thankful it wasn’t them? Or were they so innocent that what was being done to me was so completely and totally outside their frame of reference that they had no idea? I’ve resigned myself to never knowing.

    In the years since, I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t tell anyone about the rumours, tell anyone what I knew or what I suspected. Just maybe someone could have intervened. Just maybe I could have said something at the time which could have saved any number of boys from god knows what.

    I did tell. And was told I was a liar. And that I would ruin the life of this Great Man. And that I would destroy his family. And that it was impossible that this Great Man, this high-ranking official in the Mormon Church, this Good Man, could have done this. And I had to apologize, in private, to my rapist.

    I sense a thread of guilt in your narrative, that you should have told, that, somehow, your lack of action hurt others. You are not at fault. Nor was I (though the guilt is still there). Thank you.

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