The Guardian view on Barry Bennell: a chapter, not the whole story

For 20 years a football coach was allowed to abuse terrified children in his care. There is no confidence yet that it can never happen again

Barry Bennell, the former football coach convicted last week on 50 counts of abuse of young boys in a ruthless and brutal exploitation of the power he had to fulfil their dreams, will be sentenced on Monday. He will probably spend the rest of his life in prison. That will be small satisfaction for his victims, many of whose lives have been irredeemably scarred by the experience of his abuse. There may be two or even three times as many victims as have already come forward: this has been a slow and painful reckoning, and scores of men who had spent their lives in denial have finally felt able to speak out since November 2016, when Andy Woodward first told the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor about the appalling trauma of being one of Bennell’s boys.

Bennell had already served two terms in prison in the UK and one in the US before the scale of his cruelty finally became clear. It may never have come to light if Mr Woodward had not found the courage to forego his right to anonymity and speak out. The familiar outlines of serial abuse have now emerged. Bennell was a cunning and manipulative man with what an American court called an “insatiable appetite” for young boys. For more than 20 years, in what became a well-established grooming routine, he had boys to stay, scared them with horror movies, lured them into the false security of his bed and made victims of these terrified children, often only 11 or 12, sometimes hundreds of miles from home. He knew they would stay silent from the shame of admitting what had happened, from their belief that he could help them to realise their talent on the football field, and from fear that they would not be believed. Some adults had their suspicions and shared them, but to no effect: at Manchester City, the Guardian has been told, the youth team manager Steve Fleet warned the board about Bennell. Bennell went on to Crewe Alexandra, where a board member reported his suspicions to management in the late 1980s, before Bennell was sacked in 1992.

The victims themselves are sure that others knew: at Crewe Alexandra rival teams called them the “paedophile lads”. Looking back, part of the anger and grief of the victims’ families is that they realise they had overlooked behaviour they now realise they should have seen was questionable. Some of the victims suspect there may have been a second abuser working with Bennell. The National Police Chiefs’ Council report on Operation Hydrant, their investigation into football abuse, has identified more than 290 alleged suspects and 839 possible victims – not a hard and fast number, but indicative of the scale of abuse in the game. For all of these reasons, the Football Association’s own, belated inquiry, which is due to report this year, must be thorough and fearless.

Of all the huge cultural shifts of the past 30 years, the recognition of the scale of sexual abuse of children by people in power over them may be the most profound. Yet the response, the efforts to try to make amends to the generations of victims who felt they had no escape from their persecutor – or who tried and were disbelieved – have not always been well judged. Each wrong allegation sets back the cause of justice and reconciliation. But the 50 convictions in the Bennell case should silence those who say the identity of alleged abusers should be protected. A terrible chapter in football is closing. It would be reassuring to believe it cannot happen now. But the abuse of power can only be checked by constant vigilance. Complacency must be replaced by rigorous and transparent safeguarding.