Britain is shuddering from the revelation of yet another child sexual abuse scandal. What has shocked the nation even more profoundly this time is that it happened in soccer: the national game, a source of pride.
In November, a former football player named Andrew Woodward waived his right to anonymity to talk to The Guardian about his experience of being sexually abused as a young player by Barry Bennell, a former soccer coach, talent scout and pedophile. Mr. Bennell was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998 after admitting to 23 charges of sexual offenses against six boys, ages 9 to 15. (This week, appearing in court on a new set of charges relating to sexual abuse against a boy in the 1980s, Mr. Bennell pleaded not guilty.)
Mr. Woodward told the paper that he was raped more times than he could remember. His testimony was soon followed by that of other players who spoke out about being abused. Paul Stewart related how he was sexually abused from 11 to 15 by a pedophile coach who pledged to “make him a star,” while the former Leeds United player Jamie Forrester has claimed there was an organized pedophile ring in soccer. Jason Dunford, a former Manchester City youth team player, has also alleged that an organized group of child abusers was operating in the sport and that there was a conspiracy to cover it up.
There are now estimated to be 526 potential victims of child sex abuse, some as young as 4, and 248 football clubs (including at least four Premier League teams) are involved, with 184 potential suspects. The Football Association announced in November that it was conducting an investigation, while its chairman, Greg Clarke, has acknowledged that the crisis is the biggest the organization has faced in his memory. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Britain’s leading child welfare group, said in December that within weeks it had received more than 1,700 calls to a dedicated football abuse hotline.
Britain has now seen a wave of child abuse scandals washing through its key institutions: churches, the political establishment, the world of popular entertainment and now football. These outrages have involved people, as both perpetrators and victims, from every walk of life, regardless of faith and ethnicity. The example I recently wrote about in the aftermath of the revelations in Rotherham, involving a circle of abusers several of whom were Pakistani-British and taxi drivers, is a case in point. There may seem a world of difference between Pakistani taxi drivers and Premier League football, but what links them is that abusers were able to exert power and demand deference.
Soccer has become a secular religion in Britain. Last season, 30 million people attended Premier League and Football League matches, and it is projected that Premier League Clubs’ revenues will grow this season to over 4.3 billion pounds (about $5.3 billion). Given the salaries that top footballers can earn — the Manchester United star Paul Pogba is on a weekly wage of 290,000 pounds (about $360,000) — it is no surprise that young boys, and girls, given the growing popularity of women’s soccer, would dream of being a professional football player with all the money and glamour a successful career entails.
The abusers held the key to advancement and its rewards. The emerging evidence of child sexual abuse in football not only suggests how widespread it is throughout society, but also how systems of patronage enable predatory behavior.
We saw the same pattern a few years ago in a series of revelations about sexual assaults by show business personalities. Jimmy Savile, a television presenter and radio D.J., was a serial sexual predator who used his high profile to lure scores of teenage girls from the late 1950s onward. A report published in 2016 on Savile’s time at the BBC found that his youngest rape victim was 10 years old, and the total number of his victims has been estimated to be as many as 500.
Mr. Savile escaped justice when he died in 2011. A string of other entertainment and media celebrities have also been exposed for offenses over decades: The pop singer Gary Glitter was sentenced in 2015 to 16 years for attempted rape, four counts of indecent assault and one of having sex with a girl under 13; the television star Rolf Harris was sentenced to nearly six years in 2014 for 12 counts of indecent assault against four girls and young women, including one as young as 8; the publicist Max Clifford was sentenced, also in 2014, for eight years for a series of indecent assaults against girls and young women. All are now behind bars.
Other police investigations into child abuse have looked at allegations of abuse by politicians during the same period that Mr. Savile, Mr. Harris and Mr. Glitter were committing their crimes. To date, no living politician has been charged in connection with the investigation.
The prevalence of child abuse offers a dark mirror that reflects how power is wielded in our society. It shows us whom the predators see as the easy marks for exploitation. The social status that often protects abusers can be rooted in religion or political power, and the fear of community shaming plays a part, but its malign influence is most easily exerted on the most vulnerable in society: the young.
That influence was also indirectly exerted over the adults entrusted with ensuring the protection of the young. The worlds of football, music and television appear glamorous and seductive to all ages. Through their fame, celebrity abusers were able to hide in plain sight. The word often employed to describe how pedophiles gain access to young people and win their trust is “grooming,” but it seems almost certain that the coaches who assaulted children gained impunity by also grooming the adults in charge. Parents bedazzled by the possibility that their children might become soccer heroes will miss warning signs and overlook signals that something is amiss.
Once upon a time, the crimes of pedophile priests seemed inconceivable — such was the respect for their authority in a hierarchical society. The church’s prestige and influence has long since declined; in its place, show business and sport supply the celestial firmament. As the fear of God gave way to a love of money and fame, the hunger for those things allowed the most vulnerable to be exploited by those they most revered. One painful lesson of Britain’s soccer scandal is that whatever we hold most sacred we also expect to find most shockingly profaned.
Sarfraz Manzoor, a writer and broadcaster, is the author of the memoir Greetings From Bury Park.