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Hundreds Report Sexual Abuse In United Kingdom Youth Soccer Programs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the U.K., a child sex abuse scandal is rocking the world of British soccer. Last month, one former pro player went public and described how he was abused. Afterwards, a sex abuse hotline received more than 800 calls in its first week. At least 17 police departments are now investigating. For more on the story, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. And, Frank, how did this scandal begin?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So last month, Andy Woodward - he was a pro soccer player back in the '90s - he spoke openly for the first time about what he went through. He said a coach began sexually abusing him when he was 11 years old. Here's a clip of Woodward speaking to Britain's Sky News.

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ANDY WOODWARD: It affects so much of your life. It affects your relationships. It affects your self-esteem. It affects your decision making, your choices - drink, some people turn to drugs.

LANGFITT: You know, it's important remember, Audie, this is not a new case. The coach who Woodward said abused him actually was sentenced to prison a long time ago. But by going public, it looks like Woodward seemed to trigger a ton of new allegations. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - that's a leading charity here - they set up a hotline, and they've already made 60 referrals to police departments around the country.

CORNISH: So you're talking about these allegations from a long time ago. But are you getting the sense that this abuse has been happening in recent years?

LANGFITT: You know, it's not entirely clear. I mean, some of these claims clearly go back a number of decades. The organization that runs the hotline, they don't want to divulge what they're hearing. But they say it would be naive to think that this is all just ancient history.

CORNISH: Now, soccer's obviously the national sport in Britain. What kind of attention is this getting?

LANGFITT: It's a really big story. You know, you're really talking about British identity here when we're talking about soccer. You have several million people playing this game every weekend, at school, amateur and the professional level. And if you think about it in, like, a U.S. context, I mean, imagine the response if you started to see NFL players coming forward with these sorts of allegations and then hundreds of more claims followed.

It's also important to remember - this is the second big sexual abuse scandal involving a British institution in recent years. Jimmy Savile - he was a BBC DJ, a household name here in the United Kingdom. He's since passed away. By 2013, 450 people had come forward saying that he had sexually abused them.

CORNISH: When you think about how big a business football or soccer is in England - I mean, the Premier League brings in billions of dollars a year - how open have these clubs been to investigating these allegations?

LANGFITT: Well, at this point there are at least 20 former pro soccer players who've made allegations. And the Football Association - that's the governing body - they say they're investigating, but there's already been at least one allegation of a cover up. There's a guy named Gary Johnson, he was a striker for Chelsea, obviously world famous team. And Johnson says that back in the 1970s when he was a teenager, a team scout there abused him. Now, Johnson said when he brought it to the attention of the team relatively recently, Chelsea paid him more than 70 grand as a settlement but required him to keep his mouth shut. Since then, he's - the team has waived the confidentiality clause. And here's how Johnson explained it. He was speaking recently to The Daily Mirror - that's a British tabloid.

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GARY JOHNSON: So then to pay the money that they paid with an order, it tells you that they really didn't want to admit or help myself for fear of being exposed.

LANGFITT: In a statement, Chelsea says it's investigating the scout, who has since passed away. The Football Association said the idea that a club would pay hush money, they found morally repugnant.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.