Friday 24 May 2019

The last of swimming's 'den of vipers'

Civil cases concerning Ger Doyle were settled this week but the ghosts of Irish swimming won't go away, writes Donal Lynch

Ger Doyle. Photo: Courtpix
Ger Doyle. Photo: Courtpix
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The warm summer of 2005 had only just burned away to a dank September when the broad-shouldered Wexford man returned to Ireland from a holiday abroad. He was relaxed and tanned having witnessed his sister getting married abroad.

As he made his way home from Dublin airport, however, his phone suddenly glowed with a new text message. It was from another family member and contained some unsettling news. His former mentor and family friend, Ger Doyle, was under investigation. The John F Kennedy memorial pool in New Ross, where the swimmer had trained for countless, lonely hours under Doyle's watchful eye had been abruptly shut. Its manager, who was at that point also National Swimming coach, had been accused of sexually abusing numerous young boys at the swimming pool in the town.

For the Wexford swimmer there was shock that, all these years later, this day had finally come. "It was completely out of the blue. I'm still not clear who made the initial complaint", the softly spoken man, now in his early forties, told the Sunday Independent in 2011. "I was invited to go down to give any information I might have to the gardai. It was an extremely difficult thing, you can imagine, but I felt I had to tell the truth about what Doyle had done to me."

Doyle had long been friends with the swimmer's family.

To the outside world however, Doyle remained something of a sporting hero, and brought several Olympians up through the ranks. "He was lucky," former Olympian Dr Gary O'Toole, would later say of Doyle. "He happened upon a very rich vein of talent in New Ross."

And how he repaid the people of the town. Another swimmer told the Sunday Independent: "He had this private toilet that he would take the swimmers into, including myself. After this all happened I became a lot more introverted socially."

If some families were shaken to the core by the investigation against Doyle, the wider community was aghast that there was yet another child molester in their midst.

New Ross, of course has its own dark history of sexual abuse - the pale, wretched body of Fr Sean Fortune was found in Bewley Street and a local publican, Simon Murphy, known in the town as 'Black Simon,' was convicted three years previously on 42 counts of abusing young girls, including his own sister.

Doyle, on the other hand, had brought glory to New Ross. He had been voted Wexford Person of the Year in 2004. That he would now be cast in the same light as Murphy and Fr Fortune seemed unthinkable.

In Ireland's close-knit swimming community there was even more widespread incredulity. Doyle represented the third National Swimming Coach against whom accusations of sexual abuse had been made. By 1996, the year the Wexford man was appointed, former national swimming coach George Gibney had already left the country, having obtained judicial review preventing the case against him from proceeding. In January of 1998 Gibney's successor, Derry O'Rourke, had been jailed for multiple sexual offences against children - he would later serve 12 years in prison.

Doyle had taken the helm of a sport trying to extricate itself from two crises and on the brink of several more. In addition to the long shadows cast by George Gibney and Derry O'Rourke there was also the thorny matter of Frank McCann.

In the summer of Doyle's appointment, the former swimming official was convicted of burning his wife and adopted child to death at their home in Rathfarnham, Dublin. McCann had fathered a child by a teenage girl, a swimmer at his home club in Terenure, and the adoption had been arranged by Fr Michael Cleary. Retired Detective Tony Sourke, who had investigated the McCann case, referred to the three notorious figures in swimming as a "den of vipers".

In swimming circles it was hoped that the Atlanta Olympics would provide something of a counterpoint to so much horrific publicity. Michelle Smith had shown a remarkable mid-career surge and was now fancied to make the final in several events. Smith won three gold medals at the games but her reputation would later be tarnished as she was found guilty of tampering with a urine sample. She would receive a four-year suspension in 1998 - the same year Derry O'Rourke was convicted on 90 counts of abusing children. For Irish swimming it was the ultimate annus horribilus.

Doyle was the man charged with guiding the sport out of these murky waters. After the Olympics he took over as national coach and continued to reign in New Ross. The Murphy Report, which was commissioned to inquire into the sexual abuse scandals in swimming, was dismissed as a whitewash by some in the sport. Nobody resigned, nobody took responsibility and the victims were left to fund their own counselling.

Doyle missed the Sydney Olympics because he had been diagnosed with leukaemia but he remained national coach. There were rumours about him and an allegation that he planned to share a room with a male swimmer but he remained on as national coach until 2005 when formal allegations were made against him to gardai. He would deny everything and this forced his victims to give embarrassing and sometimes harrowing testimony before the court.

Doyle was sentenced to 6.5 years in July 2012 and was released last summer. He continues to deny everything and accused the victims of ruining his life.

The people who were abused by him at least had the satisfaction of facing him in court, however, and the civil actions which four of them took against him and New Ross town council, may have brought some kind of closure for them. Others were not so lucky. George Gibney remains at large in the US, where he is believed to live in Florida. Last summer Independent TD Maureen O'Sullivan said she would write to a number of US congressmen and women seeking support for requests for information from US federal agencies that would shed light on how Gibney was permitted to enter, live and work in the US.

An American journalist, Irvin Muchnick, lodged a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Homeland security in order to see Gibney's Green Card records but he was only granted four of the 102 pages on file.

"The hope is that another of his victims will come forward. The issue is partly that there are people, who Gibney has abused, who never came forward", a person connected with the case said last week. "They don't believe he will ever be extradited and, after all this time, can you blame them?"

Sunday Independent

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