Former Barça youth coach abused teenagers for over twenty years
Around sixty former students describe the practices of Albert Benaiges, a leading figure in Barça youth teams for two decades
Barcelona"There is no need to explain everything". It is what Albert Benaiges told a former student of the Escola Barcelona, in the district of Les Corts a few months ago. Benaiges returned to Barça and his name was back in the public eye. Until last week, he was coordinator of Barça's youth football teams, and was fully aware that during his 38 years as a physical education teacher in this Barcelona school he had crossed some red lines.
For over 20 years Benaiges repeatedly abused and humiliated boys and girls of different generations. ARA has confirmed this pattern of behaviour with about sixty witnesses. He masturbated with 13-year-old boys, they watched porn movies, there was touching and sexual games. These situations took place in the showers of the school, in the gym, at home and in the summer camps that took place in Corçà. These experiences have "traumatised" at least four students. In parties these students held years after leaving school the subject always came up. "From time to time I would look on the internet to see if anything came up about him", explains one girl. Talking to ARA, Benaiges denies any touching, but admits that he would not "repeat anything" of what he did during that time.
Complaint and agreement to leave
A group of former students of the Escola Barcelona have decided to report him to the police. The first report was made this Friday, and more are expected in the coming days. They hope more witnesses will come forward over the next few weeks.
Benaiges (Mexico, 1955) was dismissed from Barça on December 2, the day after the club learnt of ARA's investigation. He had returned to the club in April through Joan Laporta, after leaving for Dubai in 2011. He then spent three months in Mexico at Chivas, followed by spells in the Dominican Republic and Japan. A decade away from home after more than 20 years coordinating Barça's grassroots football, being a reference figure for many elite players. All Barça footballers and coaches with whom this newspaper has spoken have denied Benaiges's malpractice. Some are former students of the Escola Barcelona.
An idolized figure
Benaiges was very popular at Escola Barcelona. He was in charge of physical education and coordinated football. The fact that he worked in Barça's youth teams and took first team players to the school's parties gave him a great deal of influence over the children and their families. He took many of them to play at Sants – he promoted grassroots football – and at Barça itself. Taking advantage of this, he created a bond of trust with the children. "You'd leave the dining room and he'd be there. He would take us to the gym where there were games of pinching his underpants, the game of squeezing his penis...", explain two friends, who recalled many things they experienced when they were 10-11 years old, at the end of the 80s, after reading about the Maristes case. A couple of years later they masturbated with him in the locker room. One of them also did it at Benaiges's own house, where the coach took a group of boys with the excuse of going to look for some trophies. Instead of the prizes they stopped at a video store to take out porn movies. "He masturbated watching how we did it, but there was some touching," they say. "Don't tell," the teacher warned them.
Several generations have told the same story. At lunchtime, a group would be taken to the gym and play pressing catch or "whistling war" on the mattresses. All together, with laughter and complicity. "He would let us pull down his pants, let us touch him," explains a boy who is "disgusted" by the memory of those games. "He would touch you," says another. One boy suffered it when he was 8 years old, at the beginning of the 90s. Benaiges took him to the mattresses in the gym when there was no one else left and they played until he took his hand and led it to his groin. "He made me touch him and he was touching everywhere. It wasn't innocent," he recalls. The same thing happened to another student in 1980, who, in addition, during his stays in Corçà, when he was 13 years old, found himself masturbating with the teacher while watching a porn film. "The structure of the trauma is very deep. It is an abuse and it has to be denounced", he concludes. Two boys from 1982 found themselves in the same situation. They were 13 years old when Benaiges made the proposal. It also happened with girls. The same dynamic. "The game ended when we pulled down his pants, and he had it all hanging out. We also ended up with our knickers down," recalls a former student, who lived through it in the early 90s. "We saw it as a game, but now I see that it was very serious," recalls another girl.
Sometimes he would meet boys in his locker room. A former student recalls that when he was about 10 years old, Benaiges called him several times to talk about sexual matters, asking if he masturbated and urging him to do so because it was "good for your health". "One day he told me 'if you don't pull your skin down, you might have phimosis and it's painful.' He urged me to do it," recalls this boy, who saw the teacher as a "sex educator". Benaiges, precisely, clings on to this. He argues that he was in charge of sex education at school and many children approached him with doubts. He was open and direct, and more than once he met boys who might "have phimosis" asking about it.
In the mid-1990s, one boy peeked through the gym window and the teacher caught him. "Do you like what you see?" he said to the boy, then 8 or 9 years old. Benaiges took off his towel and displayed himself naked. The boy has a mental block of what happened. They were alone in the shower but he can't tell if anything else happened. He can only vividly remember the man showering and forcing him to watch. He still attends therapy today. "It conditioned me a lot for the rest of my life," he says
The ARA has spoken to about a hundred people for this report. Some witnesses keep a great memory of Benaiges, but many others explain the methods of this huge teacher, with his imposing physique. They relate how he entered the women's locker room "as if it were his house". How he touched the girls' buttocks when they went naked to the shower or how, after exercising, he took the boys' pulse on their wrists and the girls' on their chests. When a girl told him she couldn't run because she wasn't wearing a bra he touched her breast to check. He showered with students doing rhythmic gymnastics, a sport that he wasn't in charge of. He touched a girl's bottom on the wall bars and then locked her in a room to warn her that she shouldn't "explain it to anyone". He gave a student some porn magazines to keep for a trip to Andorra. When someone needed keys, he told her to take them from his trouser pocket, forcing the girl to put her hand inside. He would send children to shop at the kiosk on the corner to bring him the newspaper to his locker room, where he was taking a shower, or he would receive them naked. He went to the boys' locker room to describe to them what he had seen when he entered the girls' locker room, which was full of teenage girls. When a group of female students were reluctant to shower with the boys he pulled down his pants and asked, "Are you shy of this?" He also forced two girls to undress in the boys' locker room after catching them doing something naughty.
The school did nothing
Benaiges was insistent on hygiene and tried to make boys and girls less shy and shower together (from fifth grade onwards they were separated). Under this premise, he would go into the changing rooms to check that his rules were being followed. "Cover yourselves, Albert is coming", said the girls, who hid in the bathrooms so he wouldn't see them naked. Sometimes they had even put themselves behind the door to prevent him from entering. One school year the boys and girls agreed to take turns showering. When he found out he forced a boy and a girl to shower together. "We faced the wall, and he forced us to look at each other. It really traumatized me," the girl says. A student explained what had happened to her parents and the issue reached the headmaster's office. The next day Benaiges gathered all the students and asked those who had told their parents to stand up. Very few were able to stand up.
To avoid awkward situations, some girls avoided showering and got their hair and towel wet. He, however, checked by touching different parts of the body. Once he picked up a naked girl and, with the excuse that she had a rubber band caught in her hair, put her on his lap to help her. Another time he lifted a girl wearing only her knickers onto his shoulders. A classmate brought it to the attention of the teacher, but they did nothing.
Most of the students regret the lack of response from the school: they claim that there were complaints and nothing happened. Some parents also confirm this. One, in fact, took her daughter out of the school because she noticed some of the teachers' attitudes and the school failed to address them. The two head teachers, however, deny having any record of it. Mari Carmen de Miguel, head teacher between 1982 and 1991, assures that Benaiges "was the crown jewel", that she would "vouch for him" and that if "someone says something it's bullshit". She remembers only one complaint from a 14-year-old girl because the teacher had entered the locker room. Benaiges began to "cry" in front of the management, claiming that it was a misunderstanding, and the issue had no consequences. Maria Corbairan, head teacher until 2012, says that there was no "formal" complaint, only a complaint – to which ARA has had access – of a child who "lied vilely", according to the Corbairan, and that a judge dismissed in 1997. Five students remember, however, that when they were 13 years old they made a complaint to the management, which Corbairan and De Miguel were part of, but they were ignored. It was 1989. "They put us in front of the teachers and made us apologise," a witness says.
Benaiges himself admits that there were complaints about him accessing the girls' locker room, but there was no bad faith, he did it to check on students showering. He adamantly denies that he ever touched anyone, not even tapping the girls on their behind. On the other hand, he doubts about group masturbation. He admits that he used to do it with 17, 18 or 20 year old monitors, but after a minute of silence, he admits that maybe a minor would sneak in. "Now I wouldn't do anything. Absolutely nothing. I regret doing all this, yes, but I do not think I did anything wrong. I've never hurt anyone and, if I have, it wasn't intentional. I have an adopted child and four foster children. I have a clear conscience, I have never forced anyone, I have denounced paedophiles," he argues before wondering: "is this not worth anything?". He insists that if during the games in the gym there was some touching it was "involuntary and without malice", and that it was precisely he who pushed for there always to be two adults in Barça locker rooms to avoid risky situations.
A painful demonstration
One of the facts that the students remember as most "traumatic" was a start of the year ritual. ARA has spoken to a dozen witnesses who experienced it firsthand. He chose a minor of each sex and sat them naked on a bench in front of the whole class. He would give instructions on how to clean and dry themselves. He did this by touching the body parts. "I wouldn't wish it on any child", "it was a humiliation", "I was in shock", "He touched everything, the penis, the foreskin, he separated one girl's labia from her vagina," several witnesses explain. "I've had to go to psychologists, I've had problems with my partner because I've been disgusted with myself, angry that I didn't do anything. I have nightmares because I think I will be raped. Every time I dry myself I remember him. It's very hard for me to be alone with a man, it makes me sick to think that he touched me", recalls a girl who suffered it at the end of the 90s. Benaiges does not believe that anyone can be traumatised by these facts because he only pointed, never touched, and recalls that the day he left school 380 children said goodbye to him "in tears", wearing a T-shirt that said "Albert, I love you".
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