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Another football horror story of manipulation and abuse

A report by Barnardo’s into the sexual abuse committed at Southampton FC by Bob Higgins, a youth football coach, was published last week. It detailed the horrific abuse he perpetrated against boys over a 25 year period, despite concerns about his conduct being raised on several occasions. The report described his manipulative behaviour and how he inveigled his way into the family lives of boys who were dreaming of football stardom. It was said that he became something of a father figure to them and even now some of his victims seem to remain conflicted and confused about what they think of him. Others, including the parent of one victim described their feelings of ‘guilt, shame and revulsion’, that they were unable to protect their son. It appears that Higgins was able to sustain an unspoken code of silence that in turn protected him for many years.

Higgins was convicted in 2019 and sentenced to 24 years in prison. The Barnardo’s report was commissioned by the football club to understand what had happened, and it concluded, in the words of a news report, that Southampton had ‘ institutionally failed to protect (the boys) and that people in other football authorities neglected to act’. Another sad indictment and another name to add to the list of other coaches who have been convicted of sexual abuse over the last 25 years or more. The Barnardo’s report set out a timeline that actually started with one man’s series of convictions in 1960, 1961, 1965 and 1984.

Often when I write about football in this column it’s generally in a humorous way. But this matter is deadly serious and shows yet again how common abusive behaviour has been in a several of our top tier clubs. It’s also clear that these same clubs are now making strenuous efforts to ensure this type of abuse never happens again. This week the club I watch in London SE25 is advertising for a match-day safeguarding officer whose primary task would be to ensure that the club’s safeguarding policies are strictly observed across all aspects of on-the-day activity. Quite a responsibility with a crowd of 25,000, and probably hundreds of staff, stewards, and ball boys all on site at the same time. The role would also extend to having oversight of safeguarding arrangements for some of the junior teams. The skill set to manage safeguarding at such a major event is therefore quite broad, and obviously relies on many others playing their parts as well. They will need to be trained, as our church leaders are, to recognise, respond, refer and record.

Our Creating Safer Space training programmes do focus to a large extent on grooming and the long term damaging impact of abuse perpetrated as a result. A report in the Church Times this week noted a clergyman receiving a 19 year sentence for a series of sexual offences. The judge described him behaving as a ‘sinister, extremely manipulative sexual predator’. Our churches, football clubs and many other institutions remain well advised to be ever on their guard.

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