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Sunday 15 July 2018

A childhood burden: 'All of the secrets, all of the time'

Unlike many of the more recent abuse cases in Irish sport, former national swimming champion Chalkie White, who was abused as young boy, never even had his day in court. He spoke to our reporter about coping with the dark legacy of his childhood and the freedom that came with coming out in middle age

Retired Irish swimmer and coach Chalkie White says
Retired Irish swimmer and coach Chalkie White says "be proud of who you are and who you have grown into" to other sufferers of abuse
Ger Doyle
Frank McCann
George Gibney
Derry O'Rourke
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

A quarter of a century after he left Ireland for the last time, disgraced former national swimming coach George Gibney still periodically makes headlines here. A reporter will track him down to a small American town where there will be outrage at his proximity to young children. A blurry photo will accompany quotes from a politician here about how the powers that be must look again into Gibney's extradition. And there will be renewed handwringing about why a man who stood accused of multiple counts of child rape was ever allowed to block a prosecution against him.

The journalists and politicians who continue to raise the case of Gibney might vaguely presume that the coach's victims here in Ireland welcome the pressure being kept on their erstwhile tormentor, but Chalkie White, whom Gibney abused between the ages of nine and 15, has grown tired of it all.

On a visit to Dublin from his current place of residence in South Africa, the former national swimming champion explains that the "false hope" given by mention of possible extradition is itself toxic. "If they can get him back, then they should go ahead and do that, but there have been so many false dawns. I don't believe now that they will ever be able to make him answer for his crimes, and seeing his face every time in the paper ignites again another bout of depression," he explains. "At this stage, I don't have much hope they'll ever get him."

The long shadows cast by Gibney's abuse have marred much of the last five decades for Chalkie. He married and had two children and a successful career but, emotionally, he has been condemned to something of the same fate as his abuser: a life on the run. He's spent stints living in dozens of countries, but settling down never seemed possible, especially not in the place he came from.

"Being home definitely brings some of it back," he explains. "I think the main thing that I was left with was a fear of abandonment. Being away always means you can avoid dealing with issues. At home I feel welcome but I don't feel comfortable. This is my life: I feel like I'm always on the run."

Chalkie still swims to clear his head and keep his strokes sharp. Of all the things the abuse stole from him, the enduring love of the sport was not one. In some senses, swimming makes perfect sense for his story and personality. Swimmers are used to being self-starting outsiders. They are a super-fit 5am subculture, much less middle class than you might expect. At a national level, some of the greatest champions in the sport came from working-class Dublin - and Francis White, as he was christened, was one of them. He grew up in Drimnagh and showed an early talent for swimming after taking lessons, and began competing for the Guinness and King's Hospital clubs. It was a gregarious Geordie coach, Eddie Ince, who christened him Chalkie - and since he didn't like the more stuffily traditional 'Francis', he gladly let the name stick.

It would be another childhood coach, a quiet, nerdy fitter in Guinness, who would have an even more profound effect on his young life, however.

In the novel The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Laura Albert (aka JT Leroy) wrote that the ultimate therapy taboo for abuse victims is the question of whether, at times, the abuse was tolerated, or even enjoyed. Chalkie explains that, for him, his perception that he had 'asked' for the attention from Gibney was precisely what amplified the torment to come. "Gibney quickly became the centre of everything for me," he explains. "You hear other young people talking about sex and I would have thought to myself, 'well they're talking about it, I'm actually getting it'. It wasn't that I was dreading the turning of the door handle of the bedroom; at the time I actually liked what was happening."

He explains that the adult level of manipulation and emotional abuse was what left the deepest scar. "I was having a situation with someone who actually made me fall in love with them, even as the child that I was. Later when I turned around and he was gone, walked straight out of my life, that was very difficult and affected everything from then on."

Chalkie was an immensely talented and successful amateur swimmer, one of the first to represent Ireland at international level, and in 1975, he won the European Senior 1500m freestyle title. However, even as the medals and trophies filled his teenage bedroom, he felt quietly racked with fear. "I felt like I had to carry all of the secrets all of the time," he explains. "I knew I was gay in my teens and I was afraid of people finding out about that as much as I was about them finding out about the abuse. I was demanding from him in the way a child would demand of parents. It continued for years."

Then, one day, Gibney abruptly disappeared from Chalkie's young life, turning up a number of months later in a swimming club in Waterford. If he was nervous, he gave no evidence of this. There was no attempt to threaten Chalkie or warn him to keep the secret they now shared. "He didn't have to, that is the power of the manipulator, and as I grew older, he was still there somewhere in my life but the relationship had changed," Chalkie explains. "I still wanted to impress him and win his approval but I also hated him in a way too."

After spending time in the US on a swimming scholarship, Chalkie returned to coach in Dublin where Gibney was now a kind of rival. The two men never spoke about the past. "He had a lot of power of personality to even dictate what the subject of conversation would be about. I could see that others had taken my place. I knew he was doing something similar with the girls. I was beginning to hint in my conversations with people that he had an unhealthy relationship with the swimmers but nobody picked up on that. I felt I had asked for it, and, when I grew older, that caused me the biggest problem. As much as a child could be, I was in love with the guy."

Chalkie made it his mission to try to use whatever influence he had to ensure that Gibney would eventually be taken away from the frontline of working with young swimmers. He also confided in some key people and one of the most painful aspects of the story is how Chalkie was dealt with by some officials in swimming.

One of these officials told the Murphy Inquiry into child sexual abuse in swimming that Chalkie was "confused" and "emotionally unstable as a result of a head injury". The official would also later say that Chalkie didn't want his complaint to be reported. He now describes the comments as "the most devastating thing anyone has ever said to me".

Others were more judicious and empathetic in their approach. On the plane to the swimming World Championships in 1990, Chalkie struck up a conversation with a young Gary O'Toole and tried to ask O'Toole, in the gentlest way possible, if Gibney had ever attempted to interfere with him. O'Toole recalled an incident in which Gibney had visited him in his room at night, and although nothing happened, even as a young person, he noted the strange subtext of the visit. O'Toole began his own inquiries, which would eventually lead to a Garda investigation. Dozens more victims were interviewed - including one who had been taken to England for an abortion after falling pregnant by Gibney - and, while the swimming world was convulsed with the scandal, a prosecution was brought against the disgraced coach. In one of the darker chapters in Irish legal history, that prosecution was stopped in its tracks in 1993 by the Supreme Court. Gibney was free to make his inglorious escape, first to Scotland and then to America. Behind him, the sport of swimming was left in disarray and two subsequent national coaches - Derry O'Rourke and Ger Doyle - would themselves later be jailed for sexual abuse of children.

For Chalkie, the pall cast over him by the abuse lasted for decades and the burden of his secrets got steadily heavier. He got married at 24 and had two sons, but he suspected, and belatedly knew, that he would need a relationship with a man. He had extra-marital affairs, and at one point had to deal with a former lover turning up to a swimming event and announcing himself to everyone as "Chalkie's boyfriend". He smiles ruefully now but the embarrassment was huge at the time and he knew something had to be done.

Chalkie sought counselling and one psychologist, who warned him to be careful for his health - this was at the height of the AIDS hysteria of the 1980s - shockingly also took it upon himself to tell Chalkie's now ex-wife details that had been divulged in the privacy of therapy, including information about Chalkie's sexuality.

"I feel bad enough that I ruined someone else's life and I wouldn't want my sons to feel they weren't born out of love, but you go back to the burdens I was carrying," he says now. "I was 24 when I got married. I always knew that a male relationship was what I wanted. I accepted that I had two children and loved them, I wanted the best for them and for them to grow up happy. Everything had to be a secret. Sometimes I think that if I had been braver I wouldn't have impacted on them in the way that I did." Chalkie's work and the need to get away from the unfolding dramas in Dublin had made him eager to leave Ireland. "I had all these issues and George Gibney had blown up in the courts. He was everywhere; any time I saw a car like his, or a guy with glasses, or a beard, it was a reminder. I needed to get away."

He took up a position in the Far East and there he became involved in a relationship with a man. On one of the trips home to Dublin, he decided to tell his now adult sons why he was not returning. "I told one of my sons while I was teaching him how to drive and we were in the car and some discussion programme came on the radio about secrets that kids have from parents. I asked 'what would you do if you found out your best friend was gay', and he said 'he is' and I said 'what do you think of it?' and he said 'it's all fine, I'm interested in girls and he's interested in guys but it doesn't matter. He's my friend'."

Life would not really become much easier for Chalkie, however; his physical and mental health would suffer as the fallout from years of abuse continued to surface. "You can destroy yourself if you're not careful," he says. "This - the fallout from Gibney - has gone on from the time I was nine to today. Some things kick in every now and again but my attitude is that the only way through it all is to work on my weaknesses. I've seen myself go through drugs and drink and huge anger. There were things that controlled my life for a while. I was a huge pot smoker, it felt like a way of numbing myself."

He told more people who knew him about his sexuality and was pleasantly surprised by the reaction, but he also discovered that developing approval of himself and coping with what had happened in his childhood and adolescence would be a much longer road.

"I was worried for a long time about how people would react but in the end, they were only concerned that I was happy. I ended up in hospital three different times from just taking pills to blot out how I was feeling. That happened in the last 15 years. I didn't do it as a way to commit suicide, it was just a way of coping with what I was going through."

In the last two years, Chalkie has relocated again, this time to Johannesburg, South Africa. The terrible secrets of childhood still take their toll on him - he sees in the breakdown of a recent relationship tinges of the same abandonment dynamic that Gibney authored - but even now, in his mid 60s, he has not given up the idea of recovering from the past and sounds a hopeful note about the future.

"What I'd like to say to people who've gone through something similar is don't let it beat you," he explains. "Be proud of who you are and who you have grown into. Gibney has a life constantly looking over his shoulder and wondering what's next. He can look at me and see I have a different life. You have to move on and that's what I've tried to do, even if it has meant a lot of running."

A dark time

Irish swimming was rocked by multiple scandals in the 1990s. Along with George Gibney, three other men came to define this  dark time in the sport.

Derry O'Rourke

Derry O'Rourke

* If George Gibney was carefully covert, his successor as national coach and abuser-in-chief was almost sloppily brazen; the former national and Olympic swimming coach had sexual intercourse with pre-teenage girls and for many years sexually abused young female swimmers in a room which became known as the "chamber of horrors". Gibney's lawyer Patrick Gageby again headed up the defence but the result was not as fortuitous for the coach: O'Rourke was sentenced to 12 years, and was released in 2007 after serving nine years.

Frank McCann

Frank McCann

* Frank McCann had known both George Gibney and Derry O'Rourke quite well and, when the allegations against Gibney were about to blow up, Chalkie White in fact rang McCann for advice. Little did he know that McCann's tale was even darker. It is 25 years since the erstwhile Dublin publican and high-profile swimming official set fire to his Rathfarnham home, which killed his wife Esther and 18-month-old foster child Jessica, whom he was stalling on adopting, contrary to his wife's wishes. McCann had secretly fathered a child by a 17-year-old girl with special needs and was attempting to cover his tracks. He is currently serving two concurrent life sentences.

Ger Doyle

Ger Doyle

* The final villain was Ger Doyle, who coached several national champions at the pool in New Ross, Co Wexford. Victims would later say that he had a "sinister" friendship with Derry O'Rourke. In 2012, Doyle was jailed for six-and-a-half years - with some sentences running concurrently - for abusing boys. Last year four men, who were abused by him as boys, settled civil actions against both Doyle and New Ross Town Council.

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