London - English football may have been involved in a mass cover-up to stop victims of child sex abuse from going public.

Sportsmail has learned that a number of clubs have used insurance policies and hush money to compensate victims - and stop them from speaking out about their ordeals.

Those insurance policies with non-disclosure agreements have been ‘heavily used’ by clubs.

Chelsea have serious questions to answer after it emerged that a complaint linked to their now deceased former scout, Eddie Heath, was dealt with using an insurance policy with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Within the last three years the club paid the former player compensation for abuse that allegedly occurred in the 1970s, but with the understanding that he would not damage the club’s reputation by breaking the confidentiality clause.

On Tuesday FA chairman Greg Clarke said it would be ‘morally repugnant that people would suppress reporting of crimes against children to protect their reputation’, with an independent FA inquiry set up in part to establish if the practice was widespread.

Sportsmail now understands it was commonplace prior to a change in attitude prompted by the Jimmy Savile scandal. Some of the biggest insurance companies in the UK have provided the service, paying off victims for football clubs and organisations keen to protect their image even if it involved sexual abuse of a child.

It is believed Chelsea have only had to deal with one such case, with the victim coming to them after first going to the police.

It remains to be seen what came of that complaint. But Chelsea have now enlisted the services of an external law firm - the latest club to do so - to investigate and will hand the report to the FA, even if it leads to censure.

On Tuesday night Chelsea issued a statement. ‘The club has retained an external law firm to carry out an investigation concerning an individual employed by the club in the 1970s, who is now deceased,’ it said. ‘The club has also contacted the FA to ensure that all possible assistance is provided as part of their wider investigation. This will include providing the FA with any relevant information arising.’ Like the FA, Chelsea will not try to contact other possible witnesses because of the potential risk to ongoing police investigations.

Even so, Clarke warned that clubs who have essentially covered up abuse cases could be in trouble.

‘If anyone has behaved improperly they will be held to account and that information will be released,’ he said. ‘If a club has behaved badly they will be held to account.’

Sue Ravenlaw, The FA’s head of equality and safeguarding, added: ‘It may well be a breach of criminal justice rules too.’

The latest news came on the day the number of police forces probing allegations of historical child sex abuse in football had risen to 14 with Avon and Somerset, Essex and Norfolk Police the latest to confirm they are investigating claims.

A dedicated hotline set up by the NSPCC took 860 calls in its first week and more than 60 cases were referred to police in the first three days. This was more than triple the number of referrals made in the first three days of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012.

More than 20 former players have now spoken out about alleged abuse, including former Newcastle United footballer Derek Bell, 52, who waived his anonymity to talk to Radio 5 Live.

He said he was sexually assaulted when he played for a local boys’ club in the 1970s, and, after seeing his abuser, convicted paedophile George Ormond, again more than 20 years after the offences, decided to try to kill him.

‘I went to his house with a 12-inch knife hidden in my pocket, and I kicked his door in,’ Bell told Emma Barnett on the show.

‘Luckily for him, that evening, he wasn’t in.’

Daily Mail