Survivor Ian Ackley warns against complacency that safeguarding will stop abuse

Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter
·4-min read

A survivor has warned it would be a “disaster” for any organisation to believe safeguarding was sophisticated enough now to prevent serial sexual abuse happening again.

The Football Association is set to publish the independent review into historical sexual abuse conducted by Clive Sheldon QC on Wednesday afternoon.

It will look at how the FA, clubs and individuals handled reports of abuse made to them between 1970 and 2005, and make recommendations on safeguarding.

Ian Ackley, who was raped hundreds of times by former youth coach and serial abuser Barry Bennell between 1979 and 1983, now works as a survivor support advocate helping other ex-footballers who were abused to access therapeutic and practical help.

Barry Bennell has multiple convictions for abuse
Barry Bennell has multiple convictions for abuse (PA)

He has worked with the FA on improving its child safeguarding protocols, and is confident that the FA “gets it” now.

But he said that a more joined-up approach should not lead to complacency in any sport that abuse on a serial scale could never happen again.

“If anyone is naive enough to believe that the days are gone that any group of people can manipulate another group of people to the same degree that has happened, then we’re in trouble,” he told the PA news agency.

“That means we haven’t learned any lessons. That means we’re saying, ‘It’s all right now, it’s different now, that’s in the past, it couldn’t possibly happen’. That spells disaster for me, that’s a car crash waiting to happen. It’s happened again and again and again.”

Ackley says one in six adults in the UK – around 11 million people – suffered either contact or non-contact sexual abuse as children.

“This has gone far too long and far too many times,” he said. “Of course it could happen again, I would argue it probably already is under our noses.”

Ackley says his service has already experienced a spike in referrals after Cheshire Police forwarded on a letter about it to other Bennell abuse survivors, in the knowledge that a new BBC documentary series – Football’s Darkest Secret – will be aired from Monday.

He predicts there will be a further surge in uptake when the Sheldon Review is published.

Ackley outlined the impact the abuse has had on some of the clients he deals with.

“The majority of people will access therapeutic intervention. A lot need help financially because they’ve lost their jobs,” he said.

“I’ve had everything from guys that are homeless, someone found in a forest with severe frostbite who had to be put in an induced coma, people who have been sectioned.

“But there are some real success stories there – we’ve managed to help people out of homelessness, prevent people going into homelessness, helping people re-educate themselves and feel a value that they didn’t otherwise have, getting civil justice and getting signposted to reasonable solicitors, and not the ambulance-chasers.”

Former Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins was jailed for 24 years in 2019 for abusing young footballers
Former Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins was jailed for 24 years in 2019 for abusing young footballers (Handout/Hampshire Constabulary)

Bennell was sentenced over sexual abuse for a fifth time last year, having first been jailed in the UK in 1998 for abusing six boys, including Ackley.

The second episode of the BBC series focuses heavily on former Southampton and Peterborough youth coach Bob Higgins, and how he exerted control and influence over the children he abused.

Ackley said Bennell used similar tactics.

“He told my parents if I played football I should give up every other hobby,” he recalled.

“I was talented at music and I had to let that go. Any other social activity was not allowed, I was not allowed girlfriends – they were a distraction that moved me away from football. Equally friends, they were taking up my time when I should be at home resting, or playing football.

“Within that I missed out on all the usual social and emotional development a child should experience – girlfriends, experiences with sexuality, all of those things, and as such, he kept me emotionally blunted which made it even more difficult to even understand what was happening, never mind where to go or what was normal.

“That was my ‘normal’ and he created that.”

:: Football’s Darkest Secret begins on Monday, March 22 on BBC One. The full series will then be available on iPlayer.