Wednesday 15 August 2018

Scouts ignored advice to vet male volunteer after allegation of rape

Scouting Ireland's reputation has been called into question, writes Maeve Sheehan and Alan O'Keeffe

The problem for Scouting Ireland was that Garda then advised Scouting Ireland that he should be officially vetted before returning to his role — advice Scouting Ireland did not follow. Stock photo
The problem for Scouting Ireland was that Garda then advised Scouting Ireland that he should be officially vetted before returning to his role — advice Scouting Ireland did not follow. Stock photo

Maeve Sheehan and Alan O'Keeffe

When a scout leader was convicted in 2015 of abusing six children on camping trips in the 1970s and 1980s, Scouting Ireland issued a heartfelt and apologetic statement, assuring parents of its adherence to the highest child protection standards.

"We have a fully professional child protection team which ensures compliance with the highest standards across our 12,000 volunteers and our 500 groups around the country," the statement said.

Comforting words. But three years on, Scouting Ireland's reputation on protection has been called into question as never before.

At issue is Scouting Ireland's handling of a rape allegation made by a female volunteer against another male volunteer, which she first disclosed in 2016.

The male volunteer was investigated, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to press charges. His suspension from Scouting Ireland was lifted, he returned to scouting.

The problem for Scouting Ireland was that Garda then advised Scouting Ireland that he should be officially vetted before returning to his role - advice Scouting Ireland did not follow. The board later approved the man's promotion, and some directors knew of the allegation against the man but did not inform others.

Chief Scout Christy McCann has stepped aside temporarily pending an investigation into the organisation's handling of the issue, as have three other senior figures.

The Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, announced that she has withdrawn funding until she is satisfied that Scouting Ireland's standards are up to scratch. Other allegations relating to "serious and grave" child protection issues, disclosed confidentially to her office, simmer in the background. The Minister raised these issues with Scouting Ireland in a frank meeting with scout leaders last Thursday and has demanded prompt answers.

The organisation is expected to report back to her on these issues in the coming days.

For an organisation that prided itself on its adherence to child protection standards, the fallout has been far reaching.

Scouting Ireland is an organisation of 50,000 members, 40,000 of whom are children, in 500 communities across the country. The disclosures entered the public domain via The Irish Times, which obtained a copy of a confidential report by Ireland's leading child protection expert, Ian Elliot.

Mr Elliot has a distinguished reputation on safeguarding as he headed the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland for six years, where he led sweeping changes to protect children from potential future abuse.

Scouting Ireland retained Mr Elliot to conduct a safeguarding review for the organisation, in the course of which he reviewed the allegation made in 2016 by the female scout volunteer.

His report, quoted by The Irish Times, said parents would be "deeply shocked" at the suggestion that "an alleged rapist should not be robustly investigated" by Scouting Ireland "to confirm that they are a suitable person to continue as a volunteer".

According to The Irish Times, it said that before the volunteer was allowed to return to scouting "a robust examination of all the evidence available should have been made, including his behaviour during the Garda inquiry".

As well as criticising Scouting Ireland's handling of the 2016 rape allegation, Mr Elliott also separately advised the board of Scouting Ireland there should be a full audit of all historic cases of alleged abuse. He later said an audit should be a priority for the organisation.

He had looked at a sample number of previous complaints handled by the organisation and he was strongly critical of the operation of some of those complaint procedures where lobbying had taken place.

He pointed out there were "significant gaps" in the safeguarding structures. He said there was an absence of written policies about what constituted acceptable behaviour.

An independent investigation by a barrister into how Scouting Ireland handled a rape allegation against an adult team leader is expected to be completed next month.

Minister Zappone said there was "an enormous job that has to be completed" to provide the necessary assurances regarding the governance of the organisation. "As of now I am not satisfied," she said.

Ian Elliot warned Scouting Ireland in January about its governance, according to reports, and of the fall-out of legal actions over its handling of child protection allegations. He cited specific allegations against a male leader, which could leave the organisation "significantly exposed". According to the Irish Times, Mr Elliott told Scouting Ireland: "The settlement awards that are made can be considerable, often resulting in six-figure settlements."

Sunday Independent

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