The lawyer for Gary Johnson, the former Chelsea footballer who was paid £50,000 to settle his claim for serious sexual abuse by the club’s chief scout in the 1970s, and required to keep the settlement secret, has urged other clubs to be more open and not impose “gagging clauses” on victims.
Richard Scorer, of the firm Slater Gordon, who acts for hundreds of historic sexual abuse victims, said it is also very important for organisations to support victims, and not treat their allegations simply as a legal claim to be defended.
Johnson, who joined Chelsea on schoolboy terms as an 11-year-old in 1970 and was part of the club’s first team squad from 1978 to 1981, waived his anonymity in the Daily Mirror, to describe serious sexual abuse by the then chief scout, Eddie Heath, which “ruined” his teenage years and “haunts” his life.
Johnson in 1980, having joined the club as a schoolboy ten years earlier. Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
More recently, after he brought his claim against Chelsea following the publicity about sexual abuse generated by the Jimmy Savile scandal, Johnson has been medically diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and according to the psychiatrist who examined him, “the intensity of the flashbacks have increased.”
Yet Johnson said he was angry that when he finally approached the club years later to report the abuse he suffered, Chelsea took a confrontational approach, treating him as a legal claimant with a case which they settled, imposing a strict confidentiality clause.
It required Johnson not only to keep silent about the fact that he had received £50,000 from Chelsea, but also to agree that: “the underlying facts of the dispute and the terms, existence, or any other detail of [the settlement] Agreement shall be kept, and will remain, confidential to the parties and their advisors.”
Victims of sexual abuse who have spoken out in recent years, and the former footballers who have done so over the last fortnight, have mostly suffered in secret for decades and now emphasise the importance and benefits of being able to talk publicly about it.
Around 350 victims of abuse have come forward to police within the last fortnight, while an NSPCC hotline has taken more than 860 calls amid what has been described by the Football Association chairman Greg Clarke as the biggest crisis it has faced.
Former Newcastle player Derek Bell is one of hundreds to come forward over claims of abuse at English clubs. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
Scorer, whose firm is representing many sexual abuse victims giving evidence to the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, said he could not discuss the specific details of Johnson’s case or settlement, but urged other clubs to be more open.
“It is very important that organisations are open and honest about abuse so that it can be properly dealt with and investigated, and gagging clauses should not be imposed to prevent organisations being open and honest about abuse which has occurred and addressing it properly,” he said.
Chelsea have not commented on the case publicly but are understood to have treated Johnson as a litigant because he made a legal claim, and referred it to the club’s insurers, who agreed the £50,000 payment and gagging clause.
The club itself had to approve that settlement, and have declined to say whether they informed the Football Association or Premier League about Johnson’s evidence of sexual abuse by Heath, or conducted any investigation into Heath’s wider activities.
Johnson has said there were other victims and that Heath had him “perform in threesomes with other boys” but has not named anybody else, saying it is up to them to decide if they want to come forward.
Scorer said that it should be irrelevant if a victim first reports abuse in the form of a legal claim, and that football clubs and other institutions should be sympathetic.
“When an organisation receives details of an abuse allegation, whether through a legal claim or because a victim has approached directly, they need to be sure they see it not as a legal case to be dealt with, but as an opportunity to learn what may have gone wrong in the past and learn from it, and what they can do to help the victim.”
Johnson said he was not offered any help or support by Chelsea, and instead was angry at the lengths he was taken to in order to prove that his abuse took place, including evidence being sought from his 84-year-old father, who is living with dementia.
Many football clubs are covered by similar public and employer liability insurance as Chelsea, and one club source said that there has been active settling of sexual abuse claims recently with confidentiality clauses, but no other clubs have been identified to have done so.
FA chairman Clarke has said that it would be “morally repugnant” for clubs to have effectively bought the silence of potential victims.
The insurance company RSA said that “like every other leading insurer” it has offered insurance in the market which would cover claims for historic sex abuse, “leaving us with a potential exposure for any cases which might arise.”
RSA is understood not to require confidentiality clauses in settlements, and the Association of British Insurers said the clauses are requested by the organisation insured, or a victim, and it was not aware of “any insurers which currently request them.”
Johnson has said he felt he had no option but to accept the settlement, after the police decided not to investigate because Heath is dead. He also said that the Professional Footballers Association, the players union, had not returned his call, but the PFA said an official had talked to Johnson in 2013 and advised him to go to the police.
Chelsea declined to respond to any questions about the past sexual abuse by Heath or the club’s handling of Johnson when he came forward, saying they now have their own investigation being carried out by an external law firm.