Chelsea have become the first club to issue a payout to an alleged victim since the full extent of football’s sex abuse scandal was exposed but risk drawing criticism for not making the compensation deal public.
The club have reached an out-of-court settlement with a junior player who was allegedly abused by Chelsea’s former chief scout Eddie Heath but declined to comment on the specifics of the deal. They have previously been condemned for paying £50,000 to another former player, Gary Johnson, in effect to buy his silence.
Chelsea would not disclose how much money was paid to the alleged victim, who claimed Heath sexually abused him at the club’s old training ground in Mitcham, south London. Heath died in the mid-1980s but former Chelsea players have since come forward to allege he abused them in the showers after training sessions and games. He was said to have cynically targeted boys with single mothers and offered to give them a lift to and from the training ground to allow himself the opportunity to carry out the abuse. He became known as the “man in the van” because he would drive young players around on such a regular basis.
Chelsea will be keen to avoid appearing like they are attempting to conceal any compensation payments after they were widely denounced for making Johnson sign a confidentiality clause. Johnson, who went on to play for the club’s first team, said he was abused by Heath hundreds of times in the 1970s. He approached Chelsea in 2015 looking for compensation and alleged the club attempted to sweep the incident under the carpet. They offered him £50,000 and made him sign a confidentiality clause, in effect paying for his silence.
Legal experts have predicted the final cost of compensation for abuse victims across British football could reach more than £100m. As of 31 December 2017, the number of football sex abuse victims was 839 with 294 alleged suspects and 334 clubs impacted. Those figures are according to Operation Hydrant, the police investigation into allegations of non-recent child sex abuse.
In February the former football coach Barry Bennell was jailed for 30 years after being found guilty of subjecting junior players from Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra to hundreds of sexual offences. The trial cost £750,000 but Manchester City have already spent over £1m on their own inquiry. They have received claims from a number of alleged victims and hired two of Manchester’s biggest legal firms. Gary Cliffe, who waived his right to anonymity, is one of the alleged victims taking legal action against the club.
City also had a representative for their own legal team inside Liverpool crown court observing during every day of the Bennell trial. Bennell has appealed against the sentence and a date for an appeal hearing is being fixed. City also invited the family of Mark Hazeldine to a recent match. Hazeldine, who had been a youth star at City and was previously coached by Bennell, took his own life in 2006. His parents and friends said his behaviour changed dramatically after he went on a trip to Spain alone with Bennell in 1982 when he was 12.
The Football Association is conducting its own internal review concurrently, led by Clive Sheldon QC. The aim is to find out what officials and clubs knew about potential abuse and when, looking at documents from 1970 to 2005.
It is reviewing 6,000 files flagged as relevant during an initial review of more than 3,000 boxes from the FA’s archive. The governing body has also taken the accounts of more than 100 survivors of football-related abuse and received contributions from over 50 other relevant people.
Chelsea declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian.