Andy Woodward is a renowned soccer player who put together an exceptional career through stints at Bury Football Club, Crewe Alexandra Football Club and Sheffield United Football Club, all in the English Football League. Now retired, Woodward confessed to having been the victim of child molestation in his initial years as a soccer player, sparking many others to come out as victims.
Woodward, now 43, has carried the secret with him since the age of 11, when he first came into contact with Barry Bennell, a serial pedophile.
When asked why he had kept the incident a secret for decades, Woodward said that he thought back to his career as a soccer player and realized that there may have been many other victims, inspiring him to tell the story. In November 2016, Woodward finally broke his silence, telling reporters that he had been sexually assaulted by his former coach, Bennell.
Bennell, who was already known as a sexual offender, had been arrested in 1998 on 23 sexual offense charges. He was given nine years in prison for his crimes. When he turned 29, Woodward decided to end his professional soccer career due to severe depression and mental instability, brought on by the sexual abuse he himself had faced as a child.
In addition to himself, Woodward cites that he knows of other professional players who had also been made victims by Bennell. In the weeks following his interview, six players have come forward confirming that they too have been subject to years of abuse by coaches and scouts in the United Kingdom. In addition, an upward of 20 former professionals have broken their silence.
The allegations are currently being investigated by 17 different police forces. So far, 10 additional pedophiles have been identified. There are rumors that victims were paid off to keep quiet about the issue in order to protect the reputations of the coaches—these allegations are also currently under investigation.
Of these accounts, a former Chelsea Football Club player alleges that he was paid 50,000 pounds to keep secret years of sexual abuse from a soccer scout. Those who have publicly recounted their experiences include Paul Stewart, formerly of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and the England national football team, and David White, once a striker for Manchester City Football Club. The list of shamed coaches includes George Ormond, who has been in prison since 2002 for sexual abuse, and others who are already incarcerated or deceased.
During his youth, Woodward spent time at Bennell’s house during breaks and holidays under the impression that he would receive tips and training to hone his skills. After abusing him, Bennell would threaten to end Woodward’s soccer career if he publicly announced any of the offenses. In 1991, Bennell went on to marry into Woodward’s family and became his brother-in-law.
Officials are not yet sure of how many child abuse victims there are within the United Kingdom, but Woodward’s confession yielded hundreds of others, which indicates that there may still be more unspoken confessions out there. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, urged everyone to be active and listen to anyone who may step up and talk about child abuse.
The organization speculates that there are multiple cases of child abuse not only in the United Kingdom, but worldwide.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is based in the United Kingdom, has received hundreds of calls on its newly setup hotline after news broke of Woodward’s confession. In the brief time between Woodward’s confession and the time it took to set up the on-call hotline, the NSPCC already made over 60 referrals to various agencies across the United Kingdom.
Fans and teammates alike have cheered on the soccer players who have come out about their abuse.
Former professional darts player Eric Bristow, however, has been insensitive to the matter. In a tweet that he later deleted, Bristow claimed that he would have “sorted that poof out” had he been in the same situation as Woodward and others.
This case has grown to such a magnitude that some people have compared it to the case of Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, a notorious rapist and serial predator. During his time at BBC, he sexually abused hundreds of girls who were minors under the law. During the first days of the investigation behind Savile, 17 referrals had been made to agencies around the United Kingdom. This latest scandal has more than triple of that number and authorities are expecting it to grow since many athletes are publicly announcing their sexual abuse histories.
Across the pond, the incidents strike a chord with many U.S. citizens familiar with the infamous Penn State child sex abuse scandal that stained an otherwise outstanding career of the late coaching great Joe Paterno who failed to report abuse. Paterno’s tenure with the Penn State Nittany Lions came under fire when allegations surfaced about one of his aids, Jerry Sandusky, being involved in numerous sexual abuse incidents, which the program made efforts to cover up.