Young footballers may have been victims of cross-border 'organised sexual abuse', report finds

Children and young people involved in Scottish football may have been subjected to cross-border “organised sexual abuse and sexual exploitation”, according to a new report.
Ian Maxwell, chief executive, of the Scottish Football Association, said he was "deeply upset" by the contents of the report. Picture: Craig WilliamsonIan Maxwell, chief executive, of the Scottish Football Association, said he was "deeply upset" by the contents of the report. Picture: Craig Williamson
Ian Maxwell, chief executive, of the Scottish Football Association, said he was "deeply upset" by the contents of the report. Picture: Craig Williamson

A final review commissioned by the sport’s governing body into historical child sexual abuse revealed that specific allegations have been made in recent years of organised abuse, which are currently the subject of a criminal investigation.

The allegations concern the introduction of young players between adult men for “sexual purposes” and took place “across borders” under the guise of footballing activity.

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The independent review found young people may have been abused from the 1970s through to the early 1990s because they were failed by adults who did not act despite “reasonable cause for suspicion” they may have been at risk.

The Scottish Football Association (SFA) has called on clubs across the country to issue an unreserved apology to those harmed, without the need for allegations to be “tested” in a criminal court case.

While the 192-page publication contains harrowing first-hand allegations of rape, sexual assault and other offences over previous decades, the review’s authors stressed that it would be “a grave mistake” to claim sexual abuse in the game was a historical issue, stating that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not something which can be easily “eradicated.”

Ian Maxwell, the SFA’s chief executive, said he was “deeply upset” by the report’s contents and reiterated his “sincerest apology” to all those who have experienced abuse.

As part of the review, 33 people, some of whom waived their anonymity, provided personal accounts of their experiences.

Senior clubs including Rangers, Hibernian, Motherwell and Partick Thistle are among those named in the testimonies, as is Celtic Boys Club.

Those who came forward included Jon Cleland, who told of how he was abused by a coach, referred to as D, who worked at Hutchison Vale Football Club and later at Hibernian and Rangers and died in 2014.

Mr Cleland joined Hutchison Vale (Youth) Football Club in the early 1980s when he was ten. He alleged he was raped on eight to ten occasions, in addition to being sexually assaulted or abused on numerous other occasions.

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Another account concerning a former youth player who joined Celtic Boys Club in 1989 aged 13 said that he was sexually abused by a coach who had asked him to help with his business at the weekends.

The former player died before being able to provide a detailed account in person to the review, but his family members and a friend said the coach allegedly abused him at his place of work and in his car, and that he was given money and football boots to “ensure his continuing silence”.

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The review’s authors said the coach in question left Celtic Boys Club as a result of “some suspicion about his activities” and that “it is possible that a number of people in Scottish football may have had some suspicion” concerning his alleged abuse, including a former senior manager and a former board member of Celtic FC.

The report also said it was “concerning” the coach went on to return to Celtic Boys Club in another capacity.

The review found most of the young people who experienced sexual abuse did not report it to anyone else at the time, and in the majority of cases no-one in Scottish football knew about it.

However, it said this does not necessarily mean there was no "level of suspicion" among some in the game.

The review authors said they were "struck by how easy it was for these adults – with a sexual interest in children and young people – to navigate Scottish football in such a way as to make their activities accomplishable and to maximise secrecy and concealment”.

It said there were sometimes flaws in decision making and omissions in the actions which were taken, which meant that "regrettably sometimes this meant that little or no action was taken at all”.

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The review said it was "encouraging" the Scottish FA and its members had taken serious steps to deliver on many of its recommendations for improvement laid out in an interim report, published in 2018.

Mr Maxwell said: "I am deeply upset by the contents of the final report into sexual abuse in Scottish football and, in particular, by the deeply personal, traumatic experiences endured by young players who were abused by people in whom they and their families placed their trust.

"I reiterate my sincerest apology on behalf of Scottish football to all who have experienced abuse in our national game.

"The report also recognises the progress that the SFA and its members have made to achieve the highest standards of wellbeing and protection for children and young people to play our national sport safely today.

"Since the board issued a directive in 2016, we can report that 80 per cent of the original recommendations are either completed or in progress."

Martin Henry, chair of the independent review of child sexual abuse in Scottish football, said: "It is to be hoped that the voices of those affected will now be heard and I hope today provides some assurance and a sense of personal justice and vindication.

"I am heartened by the progress made so far in Scottish football, but today should not be considered the end of this journey, but a critical juncture to provide context to the work that is under way and which must continue."

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