Monday 17 December 2018

'He was inside my sleeping bag... I was half asleep' - unlocked filing cabinet at Scouting HQ exposes history of child abuse

 

Stock picture
Stock picture
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Mark was an excited six-year-old when he joined the Catholic Boy Scouts. His family was enthusiastic too. His mother joined in with other mothers baking for cake sales and jumble sales to fund scouting trips. The Scout Master became a good friend of his parents, dropping in on the family unannounced.

He recalls vividly his first camping trip. The Scout Master showered him with praise and put him in charge of the tuck shop, a prestigious and responsible post for a six-year-old. Mark, who cannot give his real name, recalls now that first night when the Scout Master crept into his tent during the night.

"He was inside my sleeping bag, I was half asleep, half awake," he says. After that it all made sense when the Scout Master would tell the boys that "the best scout would get to sleep near the leader's tent".

Mark's childhood was one of relentless sexual abuse. He alleges that he was abused by the Scout Master through the late 1960s and the 1970s, on camping trips and close to home. At school, he was abused by two Christian Brothers. He never told anyone.

Fr Sean Fortune
Fr Sean Fortune

Many years later, when he was in his late 30s, having endured a troubled and self-destructive life, he went to his local Garda Station and named the three men he alleged sexually abused him. One Christian Brother admitted to abusing Mark and was convicted. The Scout Master and the other Christian Brother denied his claims and were not prosecuted.

Mark is suing the Christian Brothers and Scouting Ireland. At one point, the brothers and the scouts offered him a joint settlement but the offer was not followed through, and his case is still before the High Court.

Mark's former Scout Master is believed to be among the cases that have been forwarded by Scouting Ireland to the child and family agency, Tusla, after rifling through hundreds of complaints locked inside a filing cabinet at the organisation's headquarters in Larch Hill, south Dublin.

Officially referred to as a "review of historic cases", it was conducted by the foremost child safety expert, Ian Elliot, who once headed the Catholic Church's child protection body and now is an independent consultant.

Former scout leader John ‘Jack’ Dunne, who died at the age of 83
Former scout leader John ‘Jack’ Dunne, who died at the age of 83

He was brought in by Scouting Ireland's board in 2016 to examine how the organisation handled a sexual assault allegation.

He found the handling of that complaint to be so wanting that two years later he is still embedded at Scouting Ireland's HQ, elbow deep in confidential files of past child abuse complaints, to assess how they were handled.

For an organisation that includes 14,000 volunteer leaders and 40,000 children, one could ask why this exercise was not done sooner.

Especially given his preliminary findings, which were disclosed by Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, to an Oireachtas committee last week. Mr Elliot had identified 71 alleged abusers who abused children between the 1960s and the 1980s. Fourteen of these alleged perpetrators had multiple victims.

There are 108 alleged victims.

While the figures are stark and disturbing, the stories behind them are even more important. How many of these 71 alleged perpetrators were reported to the authorities? What did the authorities do with those complaints? How many of those alleged perpetrators were prosecuted?

State investigations into child abuse within the Catholic Church diocese and in residential institutions have shown time and again how historically crimes against children were covered up to protect the reputation of the Church, of priests, of religious orders, in some cases with the collusion of gardai. Were the various scouting organisations any different?

Public records show that the notorious and prolific paedophile priest Sean Fortune was a scout leader in Wexford, until he was thrown out by the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, although he tried to re-join the organisation in Northern Ireland.

Jack Dunne, a former garda, was a scout master from 1953 to 1976, and abused boys on camping trips in Dublin and Waterford, and in his car when he drove them home after scout meetings. He was convicted in 2012 of abusing four children and died while awaiting trial on charges of convicting six others.

According to informed sources, investigating gardai discovered that Dunne had been reported to gardai in the early 1960s but could find no record that the complaint was acted upon.

John Lawlor, chief executive of Scouting Ireland, was "five minutes behind the desk" in 2012 when he was told that a scouter removed in the early 1970s had returned to Scouting Ireland.

He told an Oireachtas committee in May that he was worried there might be more and ordered a review of the old files, "traffic-lighting" them as red, amber or green.

He said "fortunately" they ended up with "seven amber light" files - which meant "something to do but it was not immediate". Sean Sherlock, the Labour TD, has now raised questions over that exercise, given what Ian Elliot told the committee last week.

Ian Elliot had neither backstories nor answers for the Committee on Children but he did elaborate a little on his ongoing work.

He suggested that there was more to gathering the information on past cases than going through files and records. He derived his list of 71 suspects from a variety of sources. These included handwritten notes and people within Scouting Ireland, who'd had concerns over many years about particular individuals. Names were also offered by victims, whom Mr Elliot said were coming forward in ever increasing numbers to share their experiences, reflecting the confidence that they would now be listened to.

The alleged perpetrators abused the children when they were away from the protective settings of their homes. Residences, camps and jamborees, were "high risk". "Abuse is frequently reported from those activities," he said.

"One of the issues that has come to light is the discovery of really a very serious perpetrator on which we did not have a file," Ian Elliot told the committee.

"It was a situation that was discovered as a consequence of a victim coming forward and saying this happened to me. We were not aware in the organisation that that person was a perpetrator. A simple review of the paper work is only part of the story."

Most alleged abusers are dead, the committee was told. The names of those who are still alive have been reported to Tusla and An Garda Siochana. While Mr Elliot could say that none were still working with Scouting Ireland, he could not say whether any still had contact with children.

His figures related to the 1960s to the 1980s. This implies that there are later years that have yet to be examined.

The impact on Scouting Ireland has been devastating, to the point where the board was reportedly warned that it could face extinction as a result of the legal fall-out.

Scouting Ireland is the result of the merger in 2003 of the Scouting Association of Ireland, and the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland. But the loose ends of governance were never properly tied up.

Sources at Scouting Ireland say that the organisation had been working on this issue for a number of years and point out that it was the board who hired Ian Elliot in the first place. He was brought in to report on the handling of a complaint made in 2016 by a woman who said she had been raped by a volunteer at a camping trip 10 years earlier, when she was 18.

The volunteer was suspended from scouting while the matter was investigated. When no prosecution followed, the volunteer was reinstated and, later, promoted. There was no further vetting of his suitability for the role. During his suspension, he persuaded other volunteers to lobby on his behalf. Mr Elliot presented his report to the board at the beginning of this year. It criticised four senior volunteers and recommended new child protection measures and a full review of historic child abuse cases.

Long before Mr Elliot's report was leaked to the media in April, it had already created huge tension and division at board level, sources said.

Against a backdrop of intense public scrutiny, the Minister suspended its €876,000 annual State funding until it got its house in order.

Chief Scout, Christy McCann, stepped aside pending an independent investigation into the handling of the rape allegation. Senator Jillian van Turnhout, dispatched to look into the organisation's governance, later produced a report highlighting "dysfunction" and "blind loyalty" towards some key figures.

The controversy has forced Scouting Ireland to implement important changes that it says were coming anyway. On October 6, a new board was voted in and new governance structures put in place. Directors have met 17 times since then, and have "hit the ground running", according to chairwoman Aisling Kelly.

A recruitment campaign is underway for a child safety executive - one of the things to raise eyebrows of Oireachtas committee members last week was Mr Elliot's revelation that at the annual scouting jamboree at Stradbally, two members of his child safety team received "16 to 18 referrals" on child safety issues, though none related to sex abuse, Scouting Ireland later clarified.

There is still no sign of the independent barristers' report into the handling of the rape allegation.

The publicity generated since Ian Elliot's preliminary findings has led to a surge of former scouts contacting various authorities.

They include at least 15 people who have contacted Scouting Ireland while a smaller number have come forward to the Garda and to the Rape Crisis Centre's networks around the country.

Scouting Ireland is already being sued by victims of child abuse, some cases lodged with the High Court long before the current storm erupted, and other proceedings issued this year.

They include actions arising from the conviction of the late garda Jack Dunne and David O'Brien, a former postman jailed in 2015 for abusing six boys on scout camping trips in the 1970s and 1980s, creeping into their tents by night to fondle them.

Scouting Ireland is exploring a compensation fund for victims, is offering counselling to those who contact it, and is putting together a victim's charter. Not before time. According to Ian Elliot, new cases will continue to come forward in increasing numbers. Not because they have been jolted by the publicity. But because now they can be confident that they will be listened to.

Contact the Scouting Ireland helpline at 1800-221199 and Tusla's helpline at 1800 805 665 from 9am to 4pm.

Sunday Independent

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