Back in 2016, Andy Woodward, at the age of 43, finally spoke up about his experiences of sexual abuse as an 11-year-old trainee for football team Crewe Alexandra at the hands of coach Barry Bennell. Tonight, we’ll hear his story in full colour as harrowing biopic Floodlights is aired on BBC Two. In the run up to the show, though, we spoke to child abuse solicitor Alan Collins about how Andy’s suffering - and that of hundreds of others in similar positions - could have gone on unchecked for so long.

Alan Collins of Hugh James Solicitors

Alan Collins of Hugh James Solicitors

When it comes to victims of child sexual abuse, it’s never easy for them to open up about their experiences, and so we often hear about it years and years after the fact. So why did it take so long for Andy Woodward and his peers to speak out?

“Victims and survivors often suppress memories of abuse – it is how they are able to get on with life,” Alan Collins of Hugh James Solicitors explained. “Victims/survivors often feel guilty – misplaced guilt of course but, nevertheless, real. They feel shame too for what happened. The victim may never speak out, but when they do it is usually because of some event or happening, for example: The police making enquiries, watching something on television, or their own children being exposed to abuse or the risk.”

He added: “[People] often assume they are the only victim and as such will never be believed, whereas in fact that is not the case, there are often several if not multiple victims, and they will be listened to.”

Whatever made Andy speak out, it’s clear that it opened the floodgates for survivors and over the next two years, 849 victims were counted as well as more than 300 suspects.

Andy Woodward in Floodlights / Image credit: BBC/Expectation TV/Matt Squire
Andy Woodward in Floodlights / Image credit: BBC/Expectation TV/Matt Squire

One of those suspects was Barry Bennell, who was ultimately arrested for sex abuse crimes in the US in 1994. But even then his many victims during his time as a football coach in the UK including Andy Woodward did not come forward for a considerable period after that. So how did he get away with it for so long? 

“Child abusers are usually known to their victims. They are often able to misuse positions of trust which gives them enormous power over a child,” Alan explains. “We see that with teachers; scout leaders, and sport coaches e.g. football. Parents often know them. The abuser is able to manipulate parent and child or, to put it another way, groom them. 

“Success whether as a teacher or football coach helps to mask their intent and behaviour and enables them to abuse effectively in plain sight. We must not under-estimate the power and consequences of grooming because the victim will often idolise the abuser which means the damage will be on-going.”

Parents and caregivers have a huge amount of responsibility to protect their children from abuse by other adults they may end up being alone around. From not allowing themselves to be taken in by other successful adults, to ensuring their child is part of a group and not taking part in one-on-one training or tutoring, there are many safeguarding techniques. 

“Be objective. Question why is it necessary for my child for example to do this activity? Who will they be with?” Alan advises. “Objectivity does not need to become paranoia. It’s about being open minded and understanding what is happening.”

Gerard Kearns as Andy Woodward in Floodlights / Image credit: BBC/Expectation TV/Matt Squire
Gerard Kearns as Andy Woodward in Floodlights / Image credit: BBC/Expectation TV/Matt Squire

He also tells caregivers to be aware of any behavioural changes or changes in routine with their children, and if you are someone who has concerns about a child but are not in any meaningful way connected to that child, to contact social services and/or the police.

“Child abuse can happen anywhere and at any time,” he says. “It exists in our society and we should be alive to it and not pretend that it could never happen to us. We should talk about it so as to be aware.”

Floodlights airs tonight (May 17th 2022) at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.

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