INTERVIEW: How does a victim survive child sexual abuse? Do they? Can they? These questions and many others are at the core of Andy Woodward’s breathtakingly honest memoir, Position of Trust, telling the horrific story of his years of abuse at the hands of Barry Bennell, an English football coach whose victims number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Gary Johnston with this interview and book review.
In recent months, True Crime News Weekly has run several articles exposing the issue of paedophile sporting coaches in the United Kingdom, in particular at Celtic Boy’s Club, a feeder for the famous Scottish Champions Celtic FC.
It has become clear however, that the Celtic situation is merely a drop in the murky ocean of abuse that seems to have been endemic in football clubs across the entire country, a fact which surely must have major consequences for sporting organisations in Australia.
One of the significant problems in highlighting the scale and extent of sexual abuse has been the entirely understandable reticence of victims to come forward. As seen in previous stories, the fanatical devotedness of some football supporters has led to accusations of ‘disloyalty’ directed at those daring to tell their story, regardless of the personal price these victims have had to pay, through absolutely no fault of their own.
Andy Woodward fits this category perfectly.
But for him, speaking out is not a choice. It’s a necessity.
A prodigious talent, Andy was a 10-year-old schoolboy footballer in Manchester when he came to the attention of Barry Bennell, a talented coach regarded by the clubs he worked for as a ‘star maker’. Bennell immediately recognised the potential of the young boy who commanded the defence like Alan Hansen, Liverpool FC’s classy centre back.
Tellingly, Bennell, was also astute – calculating – enough to realise that the key to gaining the confidence of Andy Woodward was through his parents, enthusiastic and as Andy concedes, highly vulnerable to the overtures of a man so well versed in the dark art of manipulation.
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There, indeed, is no doubt, that the Woodward family unit was groomed – there is no other word for it, with inevitable – and hideous – consequences.
Position of Trust is a harrowing, yet captivating read. With characteristic honest, Andy Woodward describes his abuse and his abuser in stark, unequivocal terms. Bennell’s ability to exploit his victims are laid out in detail, with the personal cost to Woodward himself equally blunt in its grisly depiction. His innocence stolen, Andy Woodward explains how the guilt of a victim is interminable and how it can thus affect every aspect of life, with no apparent hope or respite.
In addition to a football career that failed to reach its undoubted potential, Woodward has ridden a roller coaster of trauma, failed marriages, addiction and suicidal ideation, all of which are described with horrifying candour. That he is a victim, there is no doubt.
But the book and the man himself, provide evidence, a certainty, that a journey from victim to survivor is not only possible, but imperative.
True Crime News Weekly recently talked to Andy Woodward from his home in the UK.
Q&A With Andy Woodward
True Crime News Weekly: Andy, can you tell us the motivation for writing ‘Position of Trust’?
Andy Woodward: There were a number of reasons, but the main one was a form of therapy. For many years, I’d internalised my abuse and it had eaten away at so many aspects of my life. I felt angry, guilty and confused, it raised so many questions I couldn’t answer, and I honestly felt I’d never get over it; I had weird physical as well as psychological symptoms. When I started telling my story, it wasn’t an instant fix but the fact I’d been able to get it out there gave me a strange kind of release. And since then, it’s exploded. Now I feel that I could really be a conduit to victims of abuse in a worldwide setting.
TCNW: Reading the book, I was very aware of the level of honesty you exhibited in telling, not only the story of how you were abused, but also about some other personal aspects of your life – relationships and family in particular – why was honesty so important to you?
AW: It’s crucial. I’ve had a lot of professional help in coming to terms with it and one thing I’ve learned is the importance of leaving nothing out. If I was going to tell my story, I had to tell the whole story, warts and all. I could have edited some parts out – and I did when it came to the experiences of some other people – but I knew I had to be completely, brutally honest in talking about the consequences of my own abuse and subsequent life decisions.
TCNW: Since you first told your story, a number of other young footballers have come forward to talk about their own horrific experiences. Do you think that there are still many more victims who haven’t yet spoken?
AW: I do. I think we’ve merely scratched the surface as far as victims are concerned. There is still a huge taboo for people sexually abused in childhood to speak out, for fear of how they’ll be judged. I really, truly want to change that. When you’re a child and you’ve been exploited, you’re literally innocent of any wrongdoing and I’d like everyone, but particularly victims, to be aware of that. And if anyone felt that could speak out because of my book, I’d be so honoured. It would be a fantastic legacy.
TCNW: How do you feel about Barry Bennell now?
AW: I don’t. He’s an irrelevance. I’m glad he’s off the streets, (Bennell is currently serving a prison sentence of 30 years) but apart from that, I don’t really think of him at all. He has no influence over my life.
TCNW: You talk in the book about how Bennell groomed, not only you but your entire family, using the potential of a football career as a form of bait. Yet you also said that you considered him to be a very talented coach. In your opinion, was Bennell entirely motivated by his own desires?
Andy Woodward (Image: BBC)
AW: This is an interesting one. There was no doubt he was a fantastic football coach, years ahead of his time as far as tactical awareness was concerned. And he hated losing: in all my years in the game I’ve never met anyone who wanted to win as much as he did. But now that I think about it, that kind of mindset was indicative of who he was, what he did. He was a highly intelligent man who believed the normal rules of society didn’t apply to him, that he could do what he wanted, with whoever he wanted. Bennell had a classic narcissistic personality; a massive ego. He didn’t care about anyone else’s feelings or aspirations, it was all about him, so being the best coach he could be, was important to him, not only because it enabled him to act as he did, but also because it fed his massive levels of self-interest.
TCNW: I was struck by your contention that your experience of abuse sexualised you at an inappropriate age and that it may have made it especially difficult for you to sustain later adult relationships. Can you talk some more about this?
AW: I was raped by a man when I was a pre-pubescent child. Obviously, this experience confused me sexually, as you’d expect. I experienced massive feelings of uncertainty about my orientation and psychologically I needed to be thought of as attractive and desirable to women. I’ve only realised come to terms as to why I acted as I did. My behaviour throughout my relationships is one of the biggest regrets of my life and I’m doing as much work as I can to try to get to grips with it. I’m not proud of how I behaved but I’m trying to reconcile it with the fact that I was exposed to a situation that no child should ever have to experience.
TCNW: Do you believe that sexual abusers can be rehabilitated?
AW: Not all sex abusers are the same. Bennell was a highly sophisticated paedophile who knew exactly what he was doing, who planned it meticulously and took steps to cover his tracks. He’s shown no remorse and probably still thinks he did nothing wrong. He’s like Jimmy Savile in that regard. (British TV personality who died in 2011 and has subsequently been revealed to have been a sex abuser on an enormous scale). People like that don’t possess the necessary level of self-reflection required to rehabilitate. It’s sad but true. Some sex abusers can change but people like Bennell and Savile, no.
TCNW: Is it possible that an organised ring of paedophiles existed amongst football coaches in Britain in the 1980’s?
AW: I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that all of the coaches knew each other and maintained regular contact about players and tactics. I don’t know of any young footballer who was passed around for sexual purposes, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a possibility.
TCNW: If you could have a one on one conversation with a young person experiencing sexual abuse from a sporting coach when there was an implicit threat that any refusal to acquiesce could inhibit their chances of success, what would you say to the young person?
AW: Talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. Find someone you can trust and let them know what’s happening. I have a lot of regrets about my football career but one thing I know, is that sexual abuse is not a price worth paying for sporting success. Until such times as coaches engaged in this sort of criminal activity – because that’s what it is – are brought to account, we need to encourage any and every young person to call it out. That’s the only way it’ll stop.
TCNW: Finally Andy, if your book encourages other victims in Australia or indeed anywhere to speak up, would that be the ultimate accolade?
AW: Absolutely. This is my life now. I didn’t choose it but that’s how it is. I’ll be an advocate for the victims of child sexual abuse for as long as I live and if that’s how I’m remembered, then my experiences haven’t been for nothing. I’m continually amazed about the response to my story, worldwide, and it makes me think that there are many more victims out there yet to reveal themselves; Australia being such a massive sporting nation you’d have to think there are a few out there. Don’t suffer in silence and remember, it’s never your fault. You were a child, an innocent. I believe in helping people, that’s what life is about.
TCNW: Andy, thanks very much.
AW: You’re welcome.