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Friday 18 January 2019

Female colleagues complained about shamed childcare expert

Concerns also voiced about his use of graphic images of abuse in his lectures

NIALL McELWEE: 'Deeply regretted' trauma caused to girls
NIALL McELWEE: 'Deeply regretted' trauma caused to girls
FERGUS FINLAY: Vetting call

MAEVE SHEEHAN

THE childcare expert who quit a top academic post after being forced to admit toa conviction for sex offences was the subject of complaints from colleagues.

Conor Niall McElwee, a popular childcare expert who earned the respect of his peers through a prolific output and his media savvy, was forced to quit his post at Athlone Institute of Technology last week after the college learned that he had burst into an Amsterdam hotel bedroom occupied by four teenage girls, unzipped his trousers and drunkenly begged for sex.

It has since emerged that there were numerous concerns about him, mostly from female colleagues.

An inquiry was held into his use of graphic images of abused children during lectures at Waterford Institute of Technology in 1998. A year later, three former female colleagues wrote to the Minister for Education asking for an inquiry into his appointment and rapid promotion at the institute. Five years ago he was accused of bullying and harassment by another female colleague - a claim that was never substantiated.

Behind the public persona of this worthy academic was an individual who fell far short of the politically correct mores he preached from his college lectern.

The 40-year-old married man, who lives in Athenry, Co Galway, with his wife and five-year-old daughter, was a leading expert on protecting children and teenagers from drugs and prostitution. He was a senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Child and Youth Care learning at Athlone Institute of Technology; his numerous lectures and publications included the importance of vetting staff in child care.

As if that were not bad enough, his shameful escapade remained secret for three years, although it was known to the gardai who later reported him to the local Midland Health Board.

Their inept responses kept McElwee in his job for three years, once again demonstrating the laissez-faire attitude that regularly features in child protection in Ireland. Only a tip-off to his employers at Athlone IT last Tuesday alerted his bosses to his sordid past.

This weekend, the Health Services Executive (HSE) announced an urgent inquiry into why its officials did not inform Athlone IT about the lecturer's sordid escapade.Fergus Finlay, the chief executive of Barnardos, called for statutory vetting of everyone involved in childcare. "What is clear is that our child protection system needs to be strengthened and fully resourced in Ireland. It needs to be taken seriously if children and vulnerable people are to be properly protected."

Niall McElwee was one of the bright sparks in childcare. Shane Dunphy, a child protection expert, recalled encountering him at Waterford Institute of Technology in 1992.

"He immediately established himself as an academic force to be reckoned with, and within a year became co-ordinator of the Applied Social Studies courses, a promotion which was shortly followed by the position of senior lecturer.

"He was the youngest person in the college to reach such heights. Students and staff alike were impressed," wrote Dunphy in the IrishIndependent.

Not everyone was impressed. In 1998, a colleague complained about the material he was showing to his students to illustrate child sexual abuse. Dr Frances Finnegan, a lecturer, was concerned about the provenance of the grossly explicit images, and how Dr McElwee obtained them. Students also reported him to the local health board.

An internal inquiry was held and he was asked to stop showing the images.

Others were concerned at his rapid rise through the ranks. In 2000, Dr Anne Byrne-Lynch, Dr Jean Tubridy and Dr Margaret Hodgins - all former colleagues of his at Waterford IT - wrote to Micheal Martin, then minister for education, asking for an inquiry into his appointment and his rapid promotion ahead of other - allegedly more experienced - colleagues.

By 2001, Dr McElwee had moved on to Athlone Institute of Technology, where he went on to head up the centre for child and youth care. His ambition was evident in his unrelenting output of work - 14 books, numerous international lectures and projects that embraced Romanian orphans, teen drug use and prostitution.

Another of his causes was keeping the vetting of childcare workers at the top of the political agenda.

But controversy followed him. He was accused of bullying and harassing a female colleague, Dr Sheila McGree - charges which were never substantiated.

Dr McGree, an assistant lecturer in applied social sciences, put together a project proposal in 2002 for which she hoped to secure a Department of Education grant. Niall McElwee accused her of plagiarism. And she then accused him of trying to sabotage her project.

She said he told lies about her to her colleagues, inside and outside the institute, and "unjustly maligned" her. Effectively, she said, he had bullied and harassed her.

Two investigations and a Labour Court inquiry cleared Dr McGree of plagiarism but also made no finding of Dr McElwee's alleged bullying. Dr McElwee is now understood to have made a counter-complaint against Dr McGree.

In the midst of these internal inquiries, McElwee embarked on his trip to Amsterdam in June of that year. There to examine the effects of drug use on young people, the group included a Garda sergeant who was a member of a local regional drugs task force.

Left to his own devices, McElwee clearly got carried away in the city known as the red light capital of Europe. According to court reports, on July 24 - a Thursday night - he visited a prostitute but was too drunk to perform.

The sexual violence he then unleashed on four unsuspecting American teenage girls is damningly detailed in the Dutch court judgement. Back at his hotel, he kicked in the door of the bedroom, where the girls - aged 15 to 18 - were sleeping. They woke up to see McElwee standing before them, opening his trousers. He exposed himself to the girls and attempted to carry out what was later referred to in court as "lewd"sex acts.

The term covers a multitude: he allegedly pushed his tongue into one girl's mouth and pushed her on the bed - a charge of which he was later acquitted. He loomed bare-bottomed over another girl, holding his penis, shouting "suck me baby" and pushing her head towards his crotch. He got into bed with another, pushing his semi-naked body against her.

The girls raised the alarm and McElwee was arrested and later charged. A Garda sergeant who was present on the trip helped the Dutchpolice with their inquiries. Back in Ireland, he apparently reported the incident to his superiors.

During the trial in September, the judges concluded that the attack was a serious sexual assault. "The defendant has twice attempted to commit lewd acts with hotel guests who were totally unknown to him and who were completely taken by surprise by him in the night," said the written judgment. "This behaviour forms a serious attack on the physical integrity of the victims and, as experience shows, may have serious psychological consequences on the latter."

Dr McElwee was convicted on two charges of carrying out lewd acts. He was given a three-month suspended sentence, two years probation and a €2,000 fine.

His career should have ended there. But luckily for him his trial was not reported by the Dutch media. According to gardai, his conviction was reported by them to the Midland Health Board in 2005.

Undaunted by the trial, Dr McElwee was back at work and, incredibly, continued to court the media, offering headline-grabbing titbits of information from a forthcoming study he was preparing on heroin use in Athlone. He claimed there were up to 800 users in the midlands town, but when the report finally appeared the following year he failed to substantiate figures he had peddled to the media.

Kevin Moran, a local Fianna Fail councillor, was among those who took McElwee to task for failing to confirm the figures he had circulated in the first place.

Dr McElwee said last week that he "deeply regretted" the trauma he caused to the girls.

Alarmingly, in one interview he appeared to suggest that he was forced from his academic position, not by his own criminal behaviour but because of the risk that it would become public.

"Now, on foot of threatened revelations by different parties to the media, I have had to resign my position in Athlone Institute of Technology and must seek to try to support my family in alternative employment," he said.

Kieran McGrath, a child protection worker andacquaintance of McElwee's, appeared to have littlesympathy for his formercolleague on NewsTalk radio on Friday. What most galled McGrath was that McElwee's students had to be vetted by gardai to get on the course.

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