Friday 20 September 2019

'He kept coming back, kept harassing me' - Archaeologist reveals her sexual harassment ordeal at the National Museum

When Adrienne Corless complained about a colleague, she ended up being the casualty, writes Shane Phelan

Adrienne Corless’s contract at the museum was not renewed.
Photo: Gerry Mooney
Adrienne Corless’s contract at the museum was not renewed. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

AN archaeologist has accused the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) of badly mishandling matters when she made a complaint of sexual harassment against a colleague.

Adrienne Corless (38), a daughter of Catherine Corless, the lauded amateur historian who uncovered the Tuam babies scandal, said the museum failed to take proper action against her harasser.

Although an investigation found that she had been repeatedly sexually harassed by the colleague, he only received a minor reprimand and was allowed keep his job.

Ms Corless later departed the NMI after it decided not to renew her contract, leaving her devastated as she had loved her job. Adding insult to injury, she says she was asked by a senior official to do "a handover" of the project she had been working on to the very man who had sexually harassed her.

Last February, a decade on from the sexual harassment investigation, the man was finally suspended by the NMI after the Irish Independent published details of the case.

He has now issued High Court proceedings in a bid to be reinstated.

Adrienne Corless’s contract at the museum was not renewed.
Photo: Gerry Mooney
Adrienne Corless’s contract at the museum was not renewed. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Now a yoga teacher based in the south-east, Ms Corless said she felt compelled to "speak up" about her own experience, having read about the brave women who highlighted alleged inappropriate conduct by former Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan.

"I want to highlight what happened in the National Museum and how it can never happen again. Women need to stand up and speak out and institutions need to deal with these issues properly," she said.

"In my case, things were not dealt with properly."

Ms Corless joined the museum in 2004 but immediately began to feel uncomfortable around one male colleague. She told an investigation the man would kiss her on the forehead and cheek and displayed overfamiliarity and a lack of sense of personal space.

She alleged that he frequently put his arm around her, placed his hand on the small of her back and touched her buttocks on two occasions when they were alone in a room together.

She said she discovered the man had obtained her computer password and accessed websites containing pictures of scantily clad women when she was away from her office.

After she had made an informal complaint, the man was moved to other duties, but the harassment continued.

"Even when he was moved, he kept coming back and he kept harassing me," she said.

She made a formal complaint in November 2006 and external consultants were brought in to investigate. The man denied sexually harassing Ms Corless, but this was rejected by the investigators.

The man admitted that he had "problems with inappropriate use of the internet" and "an obsession with tall women".

He admitted fantasising after seeing "tall schoolgirls" in the museum cafe one day.

He also admitted that Ms Corless had been "a foil for his fantasies" and that he had been guilty of "unhealthy thoughts" while working with her.

Ms Corless continued working at the museum until April 2012, when her contract was not renewed. She said that in the six years between her complaint and her departure she constantly had to be wary of coming into contact with her harasser.

Today, she remains upset that the NMI failed to seriously sanction him.

"The disciplinary action taken against him was so mild and so minor. He should have been fired," she said.

It is unclear what specific sanction the man received.

But it appears the worst sanction he would have faced was a reduction in pay, loss of increments or a bar on promotion for a set period.

Although it was open to the museum to dismiss him, he was allowed to continue working there. "I feel the system was set up to support him, rather than me. I became the casualty," she said.

Ms Corless told how on one occasion a senior colleague made light of what had happened to her, joking that he wouldn't have thought the man involved had it in him to harass her.

On another occasion, she was criticised by a senior colleague for not attending an event outside of working hours that her harasser was involved in.

When she was leaving her job, a senior official asked her if she would brief her harasser on the project she had been working on.

"I was asked to do a handover to the very person who harassed me," she said.

"I don't know what they were thinking. They should never have asked me. I was quick to tell them no."

Ultimately, the project was not handed over to the man.

Ms Corless does not believe her complaint of harassment was the reason why her contract was not renewed.

She said she believed some figures at the museum felt she was "a troublemaker" after she spoke up about other issues at meetings.

Separate to her interview with the Irish Independent, Ms Corless wrote a blog in which she alleged a former prominent figure at the museum had bullied her.

This person denies the allegation, but the NMI has been dogged by accusations of bullying and poor staff relations in recent years.

The museum declined to comment on the handling of Ms Corless's complaint and her subsequent treatment, citing confidentiality around human resources issues.

In a statement, it said any allegations of harassment were of grave concern to its board and executive.

It acknowledged the museum was dealing with "some legacy HR matters".

The statement said the museum had taken a number of steps to develop a robust HR function. These include the introduction of a new dignity-at-work policy and the establishment of mechanisms for staff to raise issues of concern.

It said the NMI would also be engaging with measures announced by Culture Minister Heather Humphreys to tackle sexual harassment and abuse of power in the arts and culture sector.

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