Club response to Barnardo's independent review

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Southampton Football Club has today published the full independent review conducted by Barnardo’s into historic abuse at the club in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as its response.

Southampton Football Club's response

“Why did nobody do anything?”

This was an extremely difficult and uncomfortable question that we were asked at a meeting with an incredibly brave and dignified family member of one of the men abused by Bob Higgins. That person has suffered greatly and, quite rightly, wanted to understand how their close relative could have suffered abuse while pursuing their dream to become a professional footballer.

At the time, there was simply no answer we could provide.

Since then, we have been determined to find an appropriate response for all of the victims and survivors of abuse at the Club as well as their families. We hope that the work completed by Barnardo’s may finally help us all to understand how it could be that a predatory paedophile was allowed to operate seemingly undetected at Southampton Football Club for more than a decade before going on to work elsewhere in football until 2016.

We should start by clearly stating that the current Board of Directors at Southampton Football Club fully accept all of the findings of the review conducted by Barnardo’s.

Our aims when we commissioned this report were:

• to understand who knew or should have known that sexual abuse of children was occurring at the Club;
• what could have been done to prevent that abuse; and
• what could have been done to better support the children who suffered that abuse.

It remains very important to us that everyone has an opportunity to read the report in full, and we have not sought to edit or influence the content in any way.

It has taken a long time for the victims and survivors to be heard so we hope that this report will provide them with at least some of the answers that they might be looking for. The Club will use this report to make sure that we continue to develop our current safeguarding and speaking up practices so that we can help keep children and people with vulnerabilities safe.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who took time to speak to the Barnardo’s review team, especially the men who were subjected to abuse while growing up. We appreciate how difficult engaging with this process has been for those speaking out. Those men have suffered so greatly for so many years. We appreciate their courage in assisting this review and we will continue to stand with them and offer our support to them should any of the conclusions of this review be challenged.

Bob Higgins held the dreams of so many young boys in his hands. He completely betrayed the trust of those boys and their families. We now know that Higgins had unfettered power at Southampton Football Club and that those in senior positions did nothing to make sure that there were suitable controls in place to prevent abuse from occurring.

We doubt that anybody at the Club at that time wanted the abuse to occur. However, equally, no one in a position of power did anything to properly find out what was going on, to take action to make sure that the abuse was stopped and properly reported once it had been discovered or to offer support those who were targeted by Higgins.

Those holding power at the Club should have known what was going on at a much earlier stage. We have seen evidence that even when senior figures did find out about the allegations of abuse at the time, they seemed to do nothing to act and still failed to properly report the abuse. These failings, shockingly, left Bob Higgins free to work in football until his arrest in 2016.

Everyone working at the Club today is truly and deeply sorry for the harm and subsequent anguish that the victims and survivors of the abuse carried out by Bob Higgins have suffered over the course of so many years.

We are sorry for the impact on them and their families. It is very clear that the Club completely failed to protect so many young people from suffering abuse over a long period of time. This failure was then compounded by the complete lack of support for those boys who were brave enough to speak up about the abuse. There is no excuse for that.

Having seen the Barnardo’s report, we are in a position to now understand that the harm caused to so many young people was the result of a complete institutional failure by the Club to protect them.

Too many people in senior positions at the Club, the FA and the Football League failed to ask the right questions or simply chose to do nothing about the abuse that was occurring on their watch.

Regardless of when this abuse happened, there should have been far more done to prevent it. Once the abuse was discovered and reported, it is clear that many people involved in senior positions at the Club should have done so much more to support the children who had been abused and to prevent Higgins from being able to continue to offend, either at Southampton or anywhere else.

There were simply so many missed opportunities to end the disgraceful, horrific abuse carried out. From the first rumblings about his behaviour in 1974 through to the Dispatches programme that aired in 1997, a whole string of people at clubs, the Football Association and the English Football League had the chance to properly investigate or report the rumoured behaviour of Higgins.

Instead, they chose not to act and not to believe those who spoke up which meant that Higgins did not finally face justice until 2019.

The Club can offer no excuse for this failure to act.

We have heard that some former employees of the Club are of the opinion that these events should have a different standard applied to them because they happened so long ago. We fundamentally disagree with this view.

We are not applying a new standard in saying that child abuse is wrong and that all clubs in the 1970s, 1980s and very early 1990s should have been able to protect all of the young people under their care.

For us, this report is not about finding anyone to blame. However, it is important that we understand the reasons why the abuse at the Club happened and how it could last for so long. By doing that and being open with our views, we hope to make sure that everyone is able to learn and improve what they do from this very sad situation.

The Barnardo’s review, like the Sheldon Review before it, describes a pattern of failure to listen to children, failure to believe them, failure to look into rumours or unusual patterns of behaviour and a complete failure of the Club’s most senior leaders to do anything to prevent abuse or do anything about it. It cannot be possible that anyone could fail to regard any coach having so many children stay at their house or engage in so many extremely odd behaviours around children as highly unusual and inappropriate.

This is not to apply a contemporary filter to events. This behaviour was wrong and too many people failed to see what was going on, failed to ask the right questions and failed to act appropriately.

We recognise that some of the former Club staff and Directors may disagree and criticise our position. We are prepared for that and will take the time to explain why we feel this way. Our view is that this abuse could and should have been prevented and was hidden for far too long. We do not always get things right now, but we have to be open to learning and improvement when things go wrong.

We are sorry that no one supported the boys who bravely spoke up back in 1990 about the abuse that they suffered. We have spoken directly to some of those who reported abuse to the Police in 1990 and we are left feeling very uncomfortable with how the trials in 1990/1991 seem to have been conducted. There are no surviving records from those cases and so we will never know what really happened.

It is very clear that senior staff at the Club could have offered considerable support to the boys who complained of abuse at that time. Very sadly those men may never truly get the justice that they seek in relation to their cases because of the lack of support they received and the current “double jeopardy” rules that exist in England & Wales.

We have been truly inspired by how the victims we spoke to still wish to engage with the Club despite having had to suffer so many years of injustice. We hope to be able to continue to work with them and others who were abused while they were at the Club as they have done so much to help us understand the awful experiences they have endured.

Since Hampshire Police first contacted the Club about allegations of abuse that they received in October 2016, we have been determined to work openly with them to help find the truth about what went on at the Club and to bring Bob Higgins to justice.

We have seen and heard that some victims and survivors of abuse are unhappy with the fact that we have not contacted them directly. While we have put out communications to try to make sure that everyone who wants to speak to us knows that we will listen to them, we accept the criticism because we have not been able to speak with everyone. This is something that we will try to find a way to put right as it is important that we continue to learn from this feedback.

We have not wanted to initiate contact with everyone because we have no way of knowing whether every individual wants to speak to us. We did not want to risk making anybody’s feelings worse or to bring back past trauma. However, we would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone who was abused during their time at the Club, or their family members, and who wishes to speak with us to let us know.

We will be setting up some different ways to allow people to contact us so that, hopefully, there is a suitable channel available to everyone and we will try to find a better way to actively reach everyone impacted by Higgins’ abuse.

Southampton Football Club today is a far different place than it was in the past. We now have an established Safeguarding Team, regular safeguarding audits, clear reporting processes and a far better governance structure that means that safeguarding is properly considered at all Board meetings.

Most importantly, we have embedded an open culture where everyone is committed to the important task of making sure that we proactively protect all children, young people and anyone else who is vulnerable under our care. We work closely with the Premier League, the Police and external professional partners so that they have oversight of what we do and how we handle concerns raised to us.

However, existing and new threats to the safety of the boys and girls in our Academies remain very real. This means that we have to always be vigilant and encourage people to speak up when they see something that makes them uncomfortable or concerned.

It is important that we continue the progress that we have made in being able to actively protect everyone’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes this may involve taking difficult or unpopular decisions, but we must never shy away from doing that.

None of the steps we have taken to improve the safety of the young players that we work with now lessens the pain or suffering of anyone abused by Bob Higgins. However, we do hope that this report shows them that their experiences have helped to shape a world where it is far more difficult for anyone to be able to carry out such horrific sexual abuse.

We feel it is right to end with the same question we began with. “Why did nobody do anything?”

Regrettably, we have to conclude that it was because it was simply easier not to see the signs of potential abuse, not to listen to the children who were abused, not to properly challenge Higgins and not to stand up against his disgraceful behaviour. Too many people, at the Club and in other organisations, knew or should have known what was going on. They all failed to act. For so many boys to be abused while pursuing a dream to become a footballer is unforgiveable and completely inexcusable.

To all of the victims and survivors and their families – we are sorry.

We realise that many people may wish to speak with us as the result of this report and our response. Anyone who has questions for us or would like to find out how we might be able to support them should contact:

Kim Mundy, the Club’s Head of Safeguarding, [email protected];
or Tim Greenwell, the Club’s Senior Safeguarding Lead, 
[email protected]

We would particularly like to hear from any of the victims and survivors of abuse who would like to receive more information from us. All questions and conversations will be handled openly, sensitively and in the strictest confidentiality.

For anyone who wants to seek help independently from the Club, Sporting Chance offers a specialist service for individuals who have suffered historic abuse within a football environment. This is twenty-four-hour access to a confidential one-to-one therapy. The phone number is 07585 900000. Individuals can also email [email protected] (emails are responded to in office hours Monday to Friday).

All therapy is funded by the FA and can include access to additional specialist services such as Psychiatric Assessment and Addiction Services including residential admission.