(Reuters) - An independent report into decades of sexual abuse of young players in English football has strongly criticised the Football Association (FA), saying the governing body "did not do enough to keep children safe".
The 710 page review, conducted by Clive Sheldon QC, into the abuse of children between 1970 and 2005, found "significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse" and said the FA was slow to react when it became aware of problems in 1995.
Sheldon found there were at least 240 suspects and 692 survivors of sexual abuse as of August last year but said the actual number of cases was likely to be "far greater".
"It is clear that a great deal of sexual abuse did occur within football from 1970 to 2005," the report stated.
The review also found failings at eight professional clubs - Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Southampton, Crewe Alexandra, Stoke City and Peterborough United.
Julian Knight, the chair of British parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said the FA's failure to protect children was "truly shocking".
"We could be looking at the biggest safeguarding scandal in football's history," he said.
"The FA has grave questions to answer about its past record and needs to reassure parents about what it's doing now to ensure that children are being kept safe from predators."
FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said the findings marked a "dark day for the beautiful game" and addressed the victims of abuse in a statement.
"No child should ever have experienced the abuse you did," he said. "What you went through was horrific and it is deeply upsetting that more was not done by the game at the time, to give you the protection you deserved."
Bullingham said systems and policies were now in place.
"As a game we failed to prevent this abuse. We all have to learn from that, in order to protect future generations. We will continue to keep safeguarding children at the heart of everything we do. The past must never be forgotten, and we must never be complacent," he said.
The review was prompted after a 2016 Guardian newspaper interview with a victim led to other victims coming forward with their accounts. There have subsequently been several criminal convictions.
The report, which focused on male football given women's football's growth came after the period examined, did not however find evidence of extensive coordination between those involved in the abuse.
"It is clear that several of the perpetrators knew each other. I do not consider, however, that there was a 'paedophile ring' in football: that is, I do not consider that perpetrators shared boys with one another for sexual purposes, or shared information with one another that would have facilitated child sexual abuse," Sheldon wrote in his report.
The report contains 20 personal accounts of abuse.
"The abuse shattered the trust that survivors had in the abuser, and in those with the responsibility in football to keep children safe. The abuse had a devastating impact on the lives of many of the survivors, as well as their families and loved ones," Sheldon wrote.
"Survivors have described to me the suicide attempts, excessive alcohol or drug intake or dependency, periods of depression and other mental illness, failed relationships with partners and children, which they attribute to the sexual abuse they experienced as children," he added.
The FA was criticised for its failure to act against Barry Bennell, a coach at lower league Crewe Alexandra who later joined Manchester City, one of England's top Premier League clubs, and is now serving a 34-year prison sentence for child sexual abuse.
The report said the FA was aware Bennell had pleaded guilty in Florida in 1995 to sexual abuse of a child and that, even though he was jailed in England in 1998, did not suspend him until 2011.
"The failure to take any action with respect to Bennell following his release from prison in 2003 is troubling," the report said. "Although there is no evidence that Bennell did seek to involve himself further with football, the FA had taken no steps to prevent this from happening."
The report makes a series of recommendations to the FA including full-time safeguarding officers for major clubs and a widening of the system of spot checks for grassroots clubs.
(Writing by Simon Evans in Manchester, Reporting by Simon Evans and Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by John Stonestreet, Alison Williams, Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher)