Abuse in football support service leader hopes to bring issue into spotlight

The leader of a support service for survivors of historic abuse throughout football hopes it can bring an unreported “pandemic” in wider society into the spotlight.

Ian Ackley, who himself was abused as a child by convicted paedophile Barry Bennell, is now overseeing the Survivors of Abuse (SA) service which is co-funded by the PFA Charity and the Football Association.

The service is open to anyone connected to the game who has suffered historic abuse of any nature, whether at elite or grassroots level, and Ackley says in its first 12 months in pilot form it has already helped almost 50 individuals.

“We’ve prevented several people directly from going into homelessness, we’ve also managed to get a couple of people out of homelessness and into secure accommodation. We’ve prevented genuine poverty,” he told the PA news agency.

“We’ve had people who have previously been on the railroad tracks, who are genuinely suicidal.”

SA Service can signpost people to access the support they need, whether that is legal information, emotional support, therapeutic interventions and benevolent funds.

Ackley praised the PFA and the FA for the “bold, innovative and ground-breaking step” it had taken in not only setting up the service, believed to be the first of its kind in any sport, but also in seeing the benefit in entrusting it to someone with lived experience of abuse.

“The overwhelming feedback I have had is that being able to speak to a survivor means they don’t constantly have to explain themselves or justify themselves,” he said.

“Speaking to someone who just ‘gets it’ takes away a huge barrier in being able to reach out. They’re not reaching out to a faceless person who doesn’t understand what they have been through, they’re speaking to someone who has been through those processes which takes away some of that nervousness.”

He believes if the project continues to be a success, it can be a blueprint to tackle what he sees as a society-wide problem.

“One in six adults in the UK are known to be direct sufferers of childhood abuse,” Ackley said.

“That equates to 11 million adults, arguably the largest most unrepresented, marginalised group in the UK.

“That’s 11m people out there without any support and resources, and these are people that have had their childhood stripped from them.

“But it’s something society doesn’t talk about because it’s too awkward, it’s like that festering boil that no one wants to look at because we might get infected ourselves when it pops in our face. Consequently – and we talk about the current pandemic – this is also something that is society-wide.”

Barry Bennell was sentenced to a further four years in prison in October
Barry Bennell was sentenced to a further four years in prison in October

Bennell was sentenced last month to a further four years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of buggery and six counts of indecent assault against two boys at an earlier hearing.

That took his total sentence to 34 years with a further two years on licence, having been convicted of 52 child sexual offences against 12 boys in 2018.

Ackley, who hopes the sentencing means the Clive Sheldon QC-led review into how the FA handled child sex abuse allegations between 1970 and 2005 can be published before Christmas, warned it was possible for someone to abuse on the same scale again, despite improved safeguarding measures.

“Paedophiles are very manipulative and they will seek to gain access to children, through whatever means,” he said.

“It may have already happened – it takes men on average 22 years to disclose what’s happened to them. So anyone under middle age now, in their early 20s, might come forward in another 10 years and say ‘actually this happened to me 10, 15 years ago’.

“Those predatory people could still be out there operating in plain sight because they operate in a confident way, and it’s hard to detect. So I don’t think we could ever say that there would not be other predatory paedophiles on this scale.

“We all need to be vigilant – parents, professionals, any adult – we need to stop turning our gaze away from this very awkward subject and realise that that one in six figure really is significant.”