The Barry Bennell scandal was “brushed under the carpet” by Crewe Alexandra, according to the eminent barrister who prosecuted the serial paedophile in 1998.
Lord Carlile – one of the country’s top legal experts – told the BBC the club at the centre of the case was guilty of “institutional failure” over their former youth coach.
He also fears young footballers were abused because “this danger was not drawn to the attention of a wider public”.
Bennell, 64, who has already received three prison sentences – in 1995, 1998 and 2015 – has been convicted of 43 further charges of child sex abuse by a jury at Liverpool Crown Court. The jury were told of abuse of 12 boys between 1979 and 1990.
In a statement on Thursday, Crewe said the club “was not aware of any sexual abuse by Bennell” until his arrest in Florida in 1994, and that it did not receive any sexual abuse complaint about him “before or during his employment with the club.”
Crewe also said a police investigation found “no evidence to corroborate that the club was aware of Bennell’s offending”.
Bennell, who worked with a number of clubs across the north west of England, including Manchester City and Stoke City, was jailed for nine years in 1998, pleading guilty to 23 specimen charges at Chester Crown Court.
But the prosecuting barrister at the trial, Alex Carlile QC, who was made a life peer in 1999, has now spoken out for the first time about Crewe’s handling of the case.
“I believe the Crewe board should have addressed this issue, and I’d be very interested to see the board minutes of the time because I feel sure the board would have discussed it in some way, but I have the feeling it was brushed under the carpet,” he said.
“What I am satisfied about is that there should have been further inquiry by any club involved, including Crewe Alexandra. I’m surprised I did not read subsequently that Crewe had carried out an inquiry into what had occurred.”
Speaking to the BBC last year, Carlile said Bennell “seemed to me to be the embodiment of the sort of person you wanted no nearer than a million miles from your children”.
League Two club Crewe have been under intense scrutiny over what was known about Bennell since former player Andy Woodward spoke out in November about the abuse he had suffered while a trainee at the club. Since then, other former players who say they were victims of Bennell have come forward.
A former board member at Crewe, Hamilton Smith, has claimed he had warned the club about Bennell’s relationship with young boys in the late 1980s, but the coach was allowed to stay in his job.
Bennell was eventually sacked in 1992 for reasons that have never been made public. Smith also says he asked the FA to investigate the case in 2001, after Bennell was convicted, but was ignored.
“If any senior people at the club knew more than they let on at the time then they should have been open about it,” said Carlile.
“Football coaches had immense power over young boys who they were training and clubs were in the place of parents and it’s quite clear that they didn’t take that position seriously.”
Crewe director of football Dario Gradi, who was the club’s manager from 1983 to 2007, was suspended by the Football Association in November 2016. During Bennell’s trial in 1998 it was revealed that one of the offences happened at Gradi’s house.
John Bowler, who has been chairman of the club since 1987, continues in his role.
“I’m very surprised about the continuity in the club of a number of people who were present at that time,” said Carlile.
“Dario Gradi was a relevant figure in this case. I’m not making any sort of allegation against Dario Gradi, but he was a relevant figure and I think Crewe ought to come clean about the way in which they dealt with this problem, admitting their shortcomings where there were shortcomings.”
Both Gradi and Bowler have denied any wrongdoing, and say the first they knew about Bennell’s crimes was when he was arrested in 1994.
Gradi has said he would “do everything within my power to assist all investigatory authorities” while Crewe announced in November 2016 the club would hold an independent review into how it dealt with historical child sex abuse allegations.
But Carlile has also spoken about his dismay at the lack of interest in the case at the time of Bennell’s earlier conviction.
“I’m absolutely certain that at the time there was institutional failure, and I’m very disappointed that it now appears as a result of a lack of publicity of that case other boys have been abused, because this danger was not drawn to the attention of a wider public,” he said.
“If someone was prosecuting that case today about serious indecency against young boys, some of whom might have stardom as footballers in front of them, it would’ve had blanket press coverage.
“The follow-through by the media would have been huge, and I suspect more complainants would have come forward as a result.
“I’m absolutely certain that if the media and the sport had taken this on as an issue in 1998, a lot of young people would not have been abused in the years that followed.”
With hundreds of potential victims coming forward, multiple suspects, and many clubs and police forces across the country now investigating, the FA has begun an internal review into the crisis, headed by barrister Clive Sheldon QC.
“The FA inquiry has spluttered into life,” said Carlile, who spent a decade as the government’s terrorism legislation reviewer, and is leading an independent study into how the Church of England handled child abuse accusations.
“There was a change of leadership within almost days, the explanation has never been entirely clear to me, but I think that Clive Sheldon will be a splendid head of that inquiry.
“What we’re talking about is multiple, repeated, horrific crimes and I think the inquiry will have to have a keen intelligence about the way in which crimes of this kind develop.
“The lessons learnt must include explaining to those who run [sports] clubs to be able to anticipate these events and to take child safeguarding measures that will make it much more difficult for these events to happen.
“It’s a huge crisis for sport, it’s a bigger crisis than doping for athletics. It’s a crisis of confidence. It will diminish Britain’s very considerable success in every sport unfortunately, because parents will be more reluctant to allow their children to take part in sports clubs.
“It is going to provoke real difficulties for sports, but the sports have themselves to blame for this to some extent.”