SHAMING OF THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
As a coach is jailed and police uncover 300 crimes, why does football have such a problem with sex predators – and why has the game’s response been so poor?
THIS weekend, like any weekend, the nation’s parks will be abuzz with the familiar racket of youngsters knocking a ball about with cheerful abandon. On the sidelines will stand proud parents, some hoping their offspring’s skilful contribution to such kickabouts might be spotted by a passing talent scout and lead to a glittering career at the football club they adore.
Yet we now know that for every boy that made it, countless others were condemned to walk an altogether darker path.
They would suffer at the hands of opportunistic paedophiles who attached themselves to football’s institutions and preyed on the hopes and dreams of vulnerable youths to satisfy their own lustful depravity. For these boys, there was no glimpse of paradise, only an enduring and lonely hell – ignored, disbelieved and ostracised by both society and the clubs that should have protected them.
Most experts say the true extent of the abuse is far worse than we know, as many victims will have felt too ashamed to report their experiences and continue to suffer in silence.
In the biggest crisis of trust to hit the nation’s most popular sport, the dark underbelly of the beautiful game has been exposed. But is Scottish football finally ready to face up to its shameful past?
Certainly, the tumultuous events of the past week which enveloped Celtic Football Club and a damning report into the state of Scottish football published in the summer lead some experts to doubt whether the will is there yet.
The insidious nature of sexual abuse and perpetrators’ ability to worm their way out of trouble has never been more apparent than in the case of Jim Torbett. He founded Celtic Boys Club in 1966 and this week was sentenced to six years’ jail after being found guilty of sexually abusing three boys between 1986 and 1994.
It was Torbett’s second conviction for sex crimes against boys in his care at the club. In 1998, he was found guilty of abusing boys during his first spell in charge of the club between 1966 and 1974, when his abusive behaviour was first brought to light and he was sacked.
NOW 71, Torbett, had persuaded Celtic FC to let him start up a boys’ club, convincing them of his ability to identify skilful young players who might one day light up the Parkhead terraces as senior squad members. He said it would be good for the youngsters and for Celtic. Above all, it would be good for Torbett, affording him unfettered access to wreak havoc on impressionable youngsters lured by the prospect of wearing the club crest on their green and white hooped jerseys.
Abuse feeds off the fear and shame that drives their victims underground and prevents them from seeking help,’ said Janine Rennie, chief executive of Wellbeing Scotland, a charity which works with the survivors of abuse. ‘It is only by bringing the conversation into the open that survivors will feel they can speak out, rather than bottling it up for 30 or more years.
‘It is clear that football has had particular problems in that regard, perhaps because of its traditionally macho image where boys are not meant to show their feelings.
‘And it is certainly obvious from the game’s response to concerns raised about the behaviour of members of staff in years gone by that clubs just did not know how to deal with child abuse.
‘More often than not, they panicked and found it easier to get rid of the abuser so he was no longer their problem, rather than confront the damage he had caused. But the abuse simply followed the perpetrator to another club and so the vicious cycle continues.’
Torbett’s first trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court heard claims that when senior management at Celtic Football Club, including then manager Jock Stein, learned about his abuse they took no action other than to throw him out of the club.
One of his victims, James McGrory, told the court he had sometimes spent the night in bed with Torbett, who told him to tell his parents he was with a teammate. He said he was too frightened to tell anyone and was scared of losing his place in the team.
‘I was very young,’ said Mr McGrory. ‘I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what to do.’ When he saw allegations and Torbett’s photograph in a newspaper, it brought back memories of the abuse. ‘I broke down and had to leave work,’ he said. ‘I wept as I told my wife what had happened all these years ago. It was the first time I had told anyone.’
In the light of Torbett’s second conviction, a number of victims are preparing to sue Celtic FC itself, claiming the club breached its duty of care over its handling of Torbett’s offending behaviour. Survivors of abuse are equally angry at the Parkhead club’s refusal to issue a full and unconditional apology over the Torbett affair.
Torbett was already into the third day of his six-year sentence before Celtic made any comment about his latest conviction. Then, in a lengthy and carefully constructed statement, it offered platitudes such as ‘deep regret’ and ‘sympathy’ to shield it from mounting criticism but stopped short of saying ‘sorry’.
The club pointed out child abuse has affected many areas of society, including football clubs, sports clubs, youth organisations, educational institutions and religious bodies across Britain, and said it is the first Scottish club to appoint a ‘safeguarding officer’ to monitor the welfare of its young players.
It is undeniable that abuse in sport is endemic and widespread – one need only look at the recent scandal engulfing the US gymnastics team and ex-team doctor Larry Nassar, who was jailed for 40 to 175 years for a catalogue of sex crimes. But one of Torbett’s victims, Kenny Campbell, said: ‘What makes me so sad is the way Celtic have just ignored me and the other survivors. They need to accept responsibility for what was done in their name and settle these legal cases.’
Celtic have always contested historic claims of sexual abuse on the basis that Celtic Boys Club was a legally ‘separate and distinct’ organisation. Mr Campbell’s solicitor, Patrick McGuire, was scathing about Celtic’s attempts to distance itself from Torbett’s crimes.
‘What was laid bare during the Torbett trial and his sentencing is this man was an evil and committed paedophile who operated as part of Celtic,’ he said.
‘He was part of Celtic and any attempt by the club to say he wasn’t is preposterous. He abused young boys whose only dream was to play for the club.’
Mr McGuire, of Glasgow-based firm Thompsons, now has ten clients preparing to sue Celtic over allegations of historic sexual abuse. He told the Mail: ‘What my clients and I cannot fathom is why Celtic continue to ignore and dismiss the impact of these disgraceful crimes committed under their watch. Children in your care who worshipped Celtic were horrifically abused and you still won’t accept responsibility. How can you square this with your conscience?’
It is a question that could be levelled at many clubs which exposed their young starlets to men who not only destroyed their careers but ruined their lives.
Old Firm rivals Rangers are not above such tactics when dealing with historic cases.
IN May this year the Ibrox side faced opprobrium after telling a former youth player he should pursue a complaint of sexual abuse by the club’s former youth coach Gordon Neely, who died in 2014, with liquidators, arguing the abuse took place when Rangers were owned by a different company, now in liquidation.
But such legal chicanery cuts little ice with those trying to reform the Scottish game. Martin Henry, former children’s charity executive, is chairing an independent inquiry into historical sex abuse in football. ‘I believe all the clubs affected by this issue should apologise to those who have been most personally affected and, indeed, their families,’ he said. While clubs may try to ‘obfuscate or dodge the issue’
following legal advice and amid insurance concerns, he said: ‘My view is the moral situation predominates and they have a duty and an obligation to issue an apology to those affected.’
The interim findings of Mr Henry’s report, published this summer, offered a damning indictment on the state of Scottish football’s response to the issue of child abuse. It found child protection policies are ‘not fit for purpose’ and must change to prevent future cases of abuse. Mr Henry added he believed the ‘vast majority’ of victims had not yet come forward.
The inquiry was ordered by the Scottish Football Association in December 2016 after allegations of historical abuse and criticism from MSPs the SFA was ‘asleep on the job’ on the issue of child protection. The report highlighted gaps in its system that still leave children at risk, a shortfall in money to tackle the issue and a need for clubs to accept greater responsibility for affiliated youth clubs. The scale and scope – and devastating impact – of historic sex abuse in football crimes is only just becoming apparent following a spate of recent court cases.
They were sparked initially by the litany of crimes committed by an English-based youth coach, Barry Bennell. That prompted Operation Hydrant, the UK-wide police unit set up to investigate instances of historic sex abuse within all public institutions, to switch its focus to football. Police Scotland referred almost 300 alleged crimes during a year-long investigation.
By November last year officers had identified 153 victims and arrested and charged 13 people with offences relating to historic child sexual abuse.
The SFA has already apologised for the ‘abhorrent’ abuse suffered by young people under its care and vowed to implement all the report’s recommendations.
CHIEF executive Ian Maxwell insisted Scottish football was ‘a safe place for children’ and that modern coaches face stringent checks before they can take a class. But the report’s full findings have yet to be published after the SFA found itself embroiled in a potentially multimillion-pound civil damages claim over allegations of historical sex abuse involving its own officials.
One claimant is Peter Haynes. He waived his anonymity to tell the BBC how he was abused by SFA official and coach Hugh Stevenson, who died in 2004. Mr Haynes said Stevenson subjected him to a sustained campaign of sexual abuse, including rape, from 1979. He added: ‘Mr Maxwell says the SFA want a world-class child safety policy. That should begin with taking care of those it has already failed miserably.’
Fellow claimant John Cleland has told how he was repeatedly raped by Gordon Neely while at Hutchison Vale and at Hibernian in the early 80s, where Neely worked before he moved to Rangers. He said: ‘The SFA are responsible for making sure that those coaching our children are people we can trust yet they completely failed me and my family.’
Mr McGuire has harsh words for the SFA too. He said: ‘As the body in charge of Scottish football at all levels, the SFA is responsible for the welfare of children taking part in our game. It is to the SFA’s complete and utter shame that, due to their incompetence and at times wilful disregard, criminals of the worst kind preyed on youngsters who only wanted to play football.’
And there’s the rub. Parents who dropped off their children in the 60s and 70s never dreamed they were exposing them to evil. Nobody stopped it and for the longest time nobody helped the victims.
As it tries to put its own house in order, should the SFA now be asking itself what it can do to shame Scotland’s clubs into dealing with their past?
Sex crimes: Jim Torbett, above left, at court and, above, with Celtic Boys’ side around 1968. Far left, Jock Stein, who kicked Torbett, centre, out of the boys’ club in 1974
‘Ignored’: Victim Kenny Campbell
Former coach: Barry Bennell