‘Retraumatising Survivors’Is Scottish Football Marking Its Own HomeworkOver Historic Child Abuse?
Adrian Goldberg reports on new concerns about the Independent Review into Sexual Abuse in Scottish Football
Scottish football’s much-delayed report into historic child sex abuse is facing more uncomfortable questions after the Byline Times uncovered a potential conflict of interest among the panel who assessed the evidence.
Former police officer Mark Cooper was one of three unaffiliated experts appointed to an Independent Review commissioned by the Scottish Football Association (SFA) in 2017.
Although the SFA’s own safeguarding failures were amongst those coming under scrutiny, they also hired Cooper shortly afterwards to carry out child protection training, which meant he was working for the organisation at the same time as investigating it.
The family of one abuse victim said it looked like the authorities were “marking their own homework”, whilst a support charity said the news risked “re-traumatising” survivors.
The Delayed Report
The SFA Review into sexual abuse in football began in 2017 at the request of the Scottish government, which decided not to include it in its own existing enquiry into the abuse of children in care. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued this would be unwieldy and lead to unacceptable delays in reaching a conclusion. Critics accused her of passing the buck on an issue fraught with the risk of political fallout if, as suspected, powerful clubs were found to have covered up abuse.
Members of the Scottish Parliament on its Health and Sport Committee warned that the SFA was “asleep at the wheel” with regard to child protection, and survivors’ charities questioned whether Martin Henry was a suitable choice to Chair the Independent Review.
Still, the Review proceeded but although Henry and his panel were due to release their Final Report more than two years ago, it still hasn’t been published.
An Interim Report was issued in June 2018. It contained numerous recommendations for improving safeguarding, but there was none of the harrowing testimony dating back to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that had been shared by survivors.
This means that some of the key questions in the Panel’s original terms of reference remain unanswered. As the Interim Report puts it, “Who in Scottish Football knew of these alleged instances of sexual abuse at the time or subsequently? What did they know? And what was done?”
It remains to be seen whether these potentially explosive issues are directly addressed in the Final Report or whether, as some survivors fear, it will be a whitewash.
Various excuses were given for the delay, including staff illness and Coronavirus, until it emerged last month that the hold-up was caused by a series of pending civil claims against the SFA.
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Conflict of Interest?
Byline Times can reveal an apparent conflict of interest involving a member of the Review Panel Mark Cooper, a retired Detective Sergeant with Police Scotland.
In February 2018, Cooper met Michelle Gray from Glasgow, shortly after the death of her brother Andrew who had been abused as a child while playing for Celtic Boys Club. Michelle’s mother Helene and another member of the Panel were also there.
It wasn’t an easy conversation because Andrew, who lost his life in a tragic swimming pool accident, had been abused for three years from the age of 12 by his coach Jim Torbett. His written evidence, given to police before he died, was key to Torbett’s conviction in 2018 when he was sentenced to six years in prison for abusing three boys.
The family were keen to share as much of Andrew’s story as they knew and Michelle told Byline Times, “Mum and I opened our heart up and it was a very emotional meeting. I can remember it vividly, because it was the first time my Mum had spoken to anyone ‘official’ in relation to what had happened.”
Michelle said she was assured that Cooper and his colleague were completely independent and felt “disgusted” after being tipped off about his work for the SFA.
“How can you sit in front of two bereaved women and tell them that you are completely independent and separate from the SFA…and at the same time be working with them in a different capacity? It beggars belief” she said.
Another abuse survivor told Byline Times: “It’s disgraceful. Survivors were told he was totally independent but at the same time he was being offered work with SFA.”
The timeline of Cooper’s transition from “independent” panel member to SFA contractor isn’t entirely clear, but on his LinkedIn profile he says he’s been “rolling out safeguarding training…across Scottish Football” since February 2018 – the month when he first met Michelle and Helene.
In an email to Byline Times, Cooper said he didn’t start delivering courses until the following month – March 2018 – but this was still before the Panel of which he was a member had produced its (still unpublished) final report. Byline Times also understands that Cooper was talking to other survivors in relation to the panel’s work as recently as last summer.
Cooper has also worked as a Match Day delegate in Scottish Football since 2015, which on his Linked In profile he describes as being “the eyes and ears for the SPFL [Scottish Football League] and SFA at footballing events.”
The Importance of Transparency
None of this proves that Cooper has done anything inappropriate, of course, and his selection for the Review Panel will have been made by its independent Chair Martin Henry.
All the same, from the perspective of survivors and their families, it’s a bad look, suggesting at best, an inappropriate closeness between the body responsible for running football in Scotland, and those supposed to be holding them (and others in the sport) to account.
Janine Rennie from the support group Wellbeing Scotland commented: “For survivors and survivors’ families, they perceive there were cover-ups over a number of years, and there was evidence to support that. Some of the people who were involved in abuse in football went on to work [elsewhere] in football.”
“So… there were concerns that things hadn’t been transparent in the past…therefore it made it doubly important that we were transparent in investigating now,” Rennie told Byline Times adding that any loss of faith in the system could be extremely damaging to survivors and family members: “They’re going to go away and ruminate over this and be upset and be traumatised again over ‘could I trust that person? Was that OK?”
When Cooper was contacted by Byline Times he said: “I have been doing occasional work through my Private Limited Company (Dunnydeer Consulting and Support Limited) for the SFA delivering different courses relating to Childrens’ Wellbeing and Protection. I started delivering these in late March 2018 and continue to do so.
“I am sorry that Michelle Gray and her mother feel that this impacts on my independence to work on the Review Team. It never has,” he told Byline Times: “The fact is that, along with the other members of the Review Team, I carried out this role independently, diligently and to the very best of my ability. My roles on the Review Team and that of associate trainer delivering Children’s Wellbeing and Protection Training are unequivocally separate.”
Cooper also emphasised that he has never been an employee of the SFA, although, for Emma Bryson, one of the founders of the campaigning organisation Speak Out Survivors, that is a quibble.
“The question of whether he was working as a freelance or as an employee of the SFA ultimately represents a blurring of lines,” Bryson said.
“At best it represents a lack of transparency, and I think transparency is the key here…the Panel for this independent review have to be above suspicion to be taken seriously.”
The SFA failed to respond to repeated requests for a comment from the Byline Times.