'Why I spoke out on sex abuse in football 20 years ago'

While speaking out has become easier, authorities are still not doing enough to prevent further crime, says a survivor.

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    Ian Ackley says while it is easier to speak up on sexual abuse, the football community must do more to stop 'predatory adults' [Al Jazeera]
    Ian Ackley says while it is easier to speak up on sexual abuse, the football community must do more to stop 'predatory adults' [Al Jazeera]

    Twenty years ago, I decided to speak out, for several reasons which are all very personal to me, about the abuse I suffered at the hands of my former youth coach, Barry Bennell.

    I was originally approached by the police, who told me that Barry Bennell had been arrested in the US for the alleged sexual abuse of a 13-year-old British boy on a summer tour there. After British police made enquiries into Bennell's activities here, they were told I might have information that may prove useful in regards to their investigation.

    After careful consideration and much deliberation, with the support of my partner, I decided I would disclose the abuse I suffered at the hands of Bennell.

    Unfortunately, it proved difficult to find anyone else who was prepared to do the same. This was hugely disappointing, and I remember feeling extremely distressed that nobody else seemed prepared to corroborate my accounts, or to recognise the bravery of this 13-year-old boy in the US. I knew how hard it was for me to disclose and I felt desperate for this young lad.

    At first, I was sceptical of media attention, but decided that if I was going to go ahead with trying to hold my abuser to account, I was going to need to highlight what had happened.

    Ian Ackley, survivor of sexual abuse

    So when I was approached by Deborah Davies, who explained to me that she too thought that this was a much wider issue than an isolated incident, I began to consider the merits of collaborating with her.

    At first, I was sceptical of media attention, but decided that if I was going to go ahead with trying to hold my abuser to account, I was going to need to highlight what had happened. I needed to try and reach a wide audience in an attempt to reach others who had suffered at Bennell's hands. I knew that, in order to do so, I needed to be brutally honest and candid with regards to my own experiences. I was hoping this would resonate enough with others so that they might feel that they, too, could tell their truths.

    After Deborah's documentary ("Soccer's Foul Play", Dispatches, Channel 4), a considerable number of people came forward. In essence, it had been a success. I believe there were more than 50 individuals whom the police had spoken to, and convicting Bennell now looked like a real possibility.

    Sadly, the media, in general, didn't agree with the evidence in the programme, that this was far more than an isolated incident and that Barry Bennell was actually a predatory paedophile. That was something the Football Association (FA), Manchester City, the press and therefore the wider public disagreed with.

    Barry Bennell has been jailed several times for sexually assaulting the boys he was coaching [Al Jazeera]

    One review of the programme was particularly damning, written by a journalist at The Telegraph at the time, Giles Smith. He wrote that he felt slightly sorry for the FA and that the programme was intimidating and unhelpfully scaremongering. I hope he's revised his opinion now and followed events over the last year, when so many people found the courage to speak out about so many abusers at clubs all over Britain.

    I also believe that the cultural climate at the time did not lend itself well to topics as awkward as child sexual abuse. Such subjects were taboo, as was talking about sex in general. Our awareness was poor and our prejudices many. It was still the time when children were told, "Speak only when spoken to, respect your elders, do not argue or challenge an adult." Successful individuals were given kudos and heralded as icons to look up to.

    Two decades of silence

    All of this contributed to the silence that followed. Two decades of it. I'll say it again: 20 years.

    Another inspiration was my father, who had been diligently writing to MPs, local politicians, the press, the FA, the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) and anyone else he could, with the purpose of highlighting that there was an urgent need to ensure safeguards were put in place to prevent similar crimes in the future.

    His attempts were in vain. Consistent responses from all quarters indicated that although they sympathised, there was little anyone could do. There certainly wasn't an appetite to recognise that change was needed or required.

    In all honesty, my life became totally derailed. Bennell's face was constantly all over every form of media. I couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it or seeing it on the news.

    Ian Ackley, survivor of sexual abuse

    By the time all this hit the headlines again in November 2016, my father had died and the dossier he had compiled all those years ago had just been put in the recycling bin. I had decided that I was never going to see this issue dealt with properly.

    So imagine my surprise when a close friend rang to tell me about a guy called Andy Woodward, who had disclosed that Barry Bennell had abused him some two decades ago. I quickly called my 74-year-old mother, who rescued my father's dossier out of the bottom of the recycling bin, just in case there might be a slight chance it would come in useful.

    It was so different from 20 years ago. Almost immediately, the media was reporting the story and more and more people were taking the extremely brave choice to disclose their truths. Finally, there seemed to be an appetite to believe this was indeed as big a problem as we had previously suggested.

    In all honesty, my life became totally derailed. Bennell's face was constantly all over every form of media. I couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it or seeing it on the news.

    Overjoyed, angry and confused

    I wasn't surprised at the scale of the disclosures, but I was surprised that they had decided to disclose. I knew from my personal perspective that there were many, many others who had been abused by Bennell, some prolifically over a sustained period and others who were abused almost on a casual basis.

    I was both overjoyed and relieved that finally the truth was coming out, but equally angry and confused. I did know, though, that if the opportunity arose to finally be heard, I was going to take it. In part for my own sanity, but also for personal closure.

    Those of us with experience of childhood sexual abuse that took place many years ago are in a unique position to be able to offer expert insight into where there are failings and shortfalls.

    Ian Ackley, survivor of sexual abuse

    I don't believe, however, that anyone could have predicted the true scale of the most recent revelations, or that there were going to be so many examples of different perpetrators on a national level. The latest UK police figures now show that more than 800 people have come forward, reporting almost 300 alleged abusers at hundreds of clubs all over Britain.

    If only we had been taken seriously all that time ago, just think what could have been prevented. I can't even bear to think about it; it saddens me greatly.

    To stop this happening in the future, or at least make it incredibly difficult for predatory adults to take advantage of children and vulnerable adults, I truly believe everybody has a part to play. That is: government, sporting national governing bodies, sports clubs, those running the clubs, coaches, volunteers, parents and guardians, fans, corporate sponsors and all associated and affiliated partners and members.

    Those of us with experience of childhood sexual abuse that took place many years ago are in a unique position to be able to offer expert insight into where there are failings and shortfalls. In my opinion, we should be utilised to impart that knowledge and offer added value to the learning process.

    It is unacceptable that we don't do everything possible to ensure that we do not have a repeat of such incidents, just because there isn't the money to implement the required resources and services. It is simply not good enough.

    Several victims have told Al Jazeera that they felt unable to speak out on the abuse they suffered as children [Al Jazeera]

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