FA inquiry leader receives counselling after hearing victims’ accounts of abuse

The details relayed by child sex abuse victims to the Football Association’s independent inquiry are so harrowing that the barrister leading the investigation has begun seeing a counsellor to look after his own mental health.

Clive Sheldon QC and some members of his team have taken up the offer of psychological help, paid for by the FA, as part of the inquiry into abuse suffered by players from the 1970s to 2005. The inquiry, which began last December following allegations first made by Andy Woodward to the Guardian, has now met 15 survivors and will likely hear from a further 20 to 30 victims.

In many instances, survivors have not repeated their stories of abuse in full during interviews but the inquiry has still had a profound effect on Sheldon, an experienced QC who has conducted several investigatory reviews involving child protection and safeguarding issues.

A source close to the inquiry said Sheldon and his team felt they had a duty of care to each other, in order to encourage uptake of aftercare to prevent “secondary” or acquired trauma. The problem, sometimes known as contagious post-traumatic stress disorder, can develop after hearing the accounts of those who have suffered traumatic experiences.

The inquiry, expected to cost around £1m, has now entered what is being called a “deep dive” phase, where millions of pages of documents in the FA’s archives are being sifted through. The chaotic nature of the archiving has further delayed the inquiry, which is now expected to return its findings to the FA around April 2018.

The scale of the job has surprised Sheldon’s team – so far, they have reviewed 1,266 boxes of documents – some containing up to 1,000 pages – with 2,092 still to be scoured for reference to child protection matters. It is understood that the archives from before the FA’s charter for quality report in 1997 are poorly documented, and finding relevant material a painstaking task.

Four county associations have yet to respond to a letter sent by Sheldon in May this year, requesting cooperation with the inquiry. Help has been enlisted from the FA to implore those counties to respond, although it is believed the delay is due to inertia in those organisations rather than any deliberate attempt to cover up abuse.

The final report, which Sheldon hopes the FA will publish in the fullest detail possible, is expected to focus on between 10 and 12 case studies of abuse. It will also include information gathered from other sources, including academic experts, and will look at how the matter of child abuse in football compares with other sports.

The latest police figures, from 30 June, showed 741 alleged victims had come forward and 276 suspects identified. Operation Hydrant, the specialist police unit in charge of the operation, had received 1,886 referrals.

Sheldon’s inquiry has been restricted by ongoing police investigations, which mean that some victims are unable to be interviewed for risk of contravening criminal proceedings.

Sheldon is also believed to have contacted people involved with the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall in the 1980s and 90s, where some of the alleged abuse victims trained.

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