| 17.8°C Dublin

The drowning of the truth

Justine McCarthy on how the sex abuse outrage that has shocked the nation was slowly unravelled even though rumours buzzed around the swimming world as complaint after complaint was ignored

The first cracks began to appear in the autumn of 1992. National and Olympic swimming coach, Derry O'Rourke, had returned from the Barcelona Olympiad, where Ireland's two great hopes, Gary O'Toole and Michelle Smith, had failed to pick up a medal.

The swimming world back home was buzzing with talk about the stinging personalised attack on Gary O'Toole that O'Rourke's predecessor, George Gibney, had launched on RTE television during the Olympic games.

By now, one of Gibney's former swimmers had already confided in the vice-president of the swimming association's Leinster branch that he had been repeatedly sexually abused by Gibney. The name of the swimmer's confidant was Frank McCann.

Later that summer, the club which Derry O'Rourke coached for 20 years travelled abroad for a training camp. While there, O'Rourke made unwanted sexual advances to Swimmer X. She later recounted what had happened to both a senior swimmer and another coach. Some time after returning from the training camp, Derry O'Rourke approached Swimmer X at a swimming gala and asked her if she had made complaints about him. Swimmer X presumed that one of the two people she confided in had written a letter of complaint to the swimming authorities.

``Why would he have approached me if there wasn't a complaint made,'' she asks. ``He was always making sexual innuendos, saying that he wanted to check your pulse and putting his hand on your chest, that sort of thing,'' says Swimmer X. ``On away trips he would walk into your bedroom without knocking or he would come to your room late at night and say: `You're having trouble sleeping, I'll do relaxation therapy on you.'

``We didn't have a female chaperone on that trip. Even though there was a rule that girl swimmers had to be accompanied by a female chaperone, I can remember at least five trips when there was none.''

It was around the time of Swimmer X's encounter with O'Rourke at the gala that a loud argument was witnessed in the headquarters of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association. One of the people involved in the row was Frank McCann, vice-president of the Leinster branch and assistant coach to Terenure Swimming Club. Speculation persists to this day that the dispute concerned a missing letter or letters.

Subsequently, Frank McCann and another senior swimming official visited Derry O'Rourke at the club he coached. Nobody had ever seen the pair on the premises before and the visit was considered highly unusual by the ordinary members.

In early September, a special meeting of some officials of the IASA was scheduled to take place. According to numerous sources, the only item on the agenda was the matter of correspondence to the House of Sport, the headquarters of the IASA, which had gone missing. But the meeting never took place because on that evening, the bodies of Frank McCann's wife, Esther, and his sister's 18-month-old child, Jessica, whom Esther and Frank had tried to adopt, were being brought to the church on the eve of their funeral.

Esther and Jessica had died when the family home in Rathfarnham was set ablaze on September 4, 1992. The gardai began a double murder inquiry. Early in the investigation, Frank McCann emerged as the chief suspect but, on the very night he was being questioned in Tallaght garda station about the deaths of his wife and his niece, he was elected president of the Leinster branch.

It would emerge in his murder trial that McCann had fathered a child by a 17-year-old swimmer (the baby was born after his marriage with Esther) and that, at the time of the fatal fire, he was having a sexual relationship with another young swimmer.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

On November 11, 1992, the parents of a 16-year-old swimmer at the club coached by Derry O'Rourke told three club committee members at a specially requested meeting that Derry O'Rourke had sexually assaulted their daughter by putting his hands inside her swimsuit and fondling her breasts. The officials said that a case could be made that he had merely been measuring the girl's pectoral muscles but they gave an assurance, nonetheless, that he would no longer have access to the girls' changing rooms.

Later that month, and in the following month of December '92 , Derry O'Rourke repeatedly sexually assaulted another female swimmer at the club.

Meanwhile, a number of other swimmers had approached Gary O'Toole and told him that they had been sexually abused by George Gibney, the founder of Trojans Swimming Club and former national and Olympic coach. O'Toole, who would have had more clout than any other competitive swimmer at the time, wrote his first letter to an official of the Leinster branch on December 13, 1992, outlining the complaints.

He did not receive a reply. He wrote a second letter complaining that the swimmers who had made complaints about Gibney were being victimised. Again, he got no reply. Next, he wrote a letter to the IASA asking for a meeting. This time he did receive a reply. The answer was no.

Gary O'Toole, who has computerised records of all this correspondence, says that when, eventually, he telephoned the president of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, the president ``slammed the phone down'' on him.

The only recourse left was the police. Before 1992 was out, six swimmers had walked into Blackrock garda station in south Dublin and made sworn statements alleging that George Gibney had sexually abused them.

The secret criminal lives of Derry O'Rourke, George Gibney and Frank McCann were starting to unravel.

LOUISE'S STORY: raped when she was 12

Louise had been systematically raped three times a week by Derry O'Rourke when she was a 12-year-old child. She never told a soul. As soon as she was old enough, she left her family home and went to live outside Dublin in order to avoid ever encountering her rapist.

One night in January, 1993, Louise's sister rang her from home. They chatted about this and that. Then Louise's sister said she had heard that the gardai were investigating George Gibney on allegations of sexual abuse. ``Can you believe it?'' the sister asked incredulously.

``Yes, I can,'' Louise said, ``because Derry O'Rourke did it to me.''

After that phone call, Louise packed a bag, drove back to Dublin and swore a statement to the gardai, detailing the myriad assaults and rapes to which Derry O'Rourke had subjected her.

A second garda investigation into a former national swimming coach had begun in the space of a month, this one based at the Domestic Violence Unit in Harcourt Square.

News of the investigation gradually spread throughout Irish swimming and, one by one, the girls who had kept their secret for years one for as long as 16 years started to come forward.

Jacinta thought she had learned to handle the trauma of her childhood: that was until her brother asked her to be godmother to his first child. She was over the moon. But then her brother casually mentioned that the coach at Jacinta's old swimming club, a man called Derry O'Rourke, who had previously sold life insurance to him and his wife, had called to the house to see if they would add the baby's name to the policy.

``I freaked. I just freaked,'' says Jacinta. ``I went to the guards. Then I got another swimmer, Carolann, to go, too, because I knew something had happened to her.''

On September 9, 1993, gardai interviewed the headmaster of the school which employed O'Rourke as pool manager and which housed the pool used by the club he coached.

After consulting with the school's solicitors and its board of governors, the headmaster suspended O'Rourke, ordered him to return his key to the school and barred him from the premises.

He then informed the club committee of his actions, explaining that they were the result of an investigation into Derry O'Rourke's behaviour in the pool area.

But, in December, 1993, club members were informed by the committee that Derry O'Rourke was being appointed Club Development Officer, including responsibility for development of `minor' (12 and 13-year-olds) swimming at another named Dublin pool.

The club's constitution had been specially amended to accommodate the position. He was to be paid £15,8000 for the year-long contract.

In the spring of 1994, the headmaster of the school wrote to the club notifying the committee that the gardai had informed him of Derry O'Rourke's continuing presence on the pool bank despite the, by then, six-month-old ban.

Gardai have confirmed that they also interviewed members of the club committee as part of their inquiries.

At the club's annual general meeting on January 31, 1995, the president announced Derry O'Rourke's resignation as Club Development Officer the previous July, citing ``financial and administrative reasons'' and thanking him for his ``outstanding contribution''. He added: ``We parted on amicable terms.''

By the time of that agm, the garda file on the O'Rourke investigation had been with the Director of Public Prosecutions for almost two months, containing sworn statements by more than a dozen of the women he had abused as children.

Yet the president's statement continued cryptically: ``There is no place in Irish amateur swimming for unfounded criticism, nor is there a place in ******** (club's name) for private agendas.''

In her report to the agm, the club secretary also paid tribute to Derry O'Rourke. He was arrested and charged at Kilmainham District Court on 90 counts of unlawful carnal knowledge, indecent assault and sexual assault in July, 1995.

In the meantime, Frank McCann and George Gibney had both been arrested in April, 1993. At Waterford District Court, McCann was charged with the murders of Esther and Jessica.

At Dun Laoghaire District Court, Gibney was charged on 27 counts of indecent assault and unlawful carnal knowledge.

``The three of them were always very pally,'' says a woman who was on the periphery of the swimming world but who knew Gibney, McCann and O'Rourke. ``They were very macho. There were always lots of suggestive remarks being made about girls in their swimsuits.''

Individual swimmers recall that on a couple of occasions, when Derry O'Rourke was unable to travel abroad for overseas training camps, he nominated Frank McCann to go in his place. In the mid-1980s, a new organisation called the City of Dublin Swim Team was founded to promote Dublin through the team's participation in European competitions.

It was lent support by a number of Dublin's lords mayor and side-by-side on its committee sat Frank McCann and George Gibney.

And documentary evidence exists showing that, when rumours began to circulate among swimmers about the garda investigation into George Gibney, Frank McCann wrote to the IASA demanding an apology on Gibney's behalf.

But George Gibney was to prove to be the luckiest of the three.

He went to the High Court and won an order prohibiting the DPP from going ahead with the prosecution on the grounds that the charges against him were unspecific in nature and too old to properly defend.

He left the country after that, first taking up a job with a swimming club in Scotland, from which he was sacked, then moving to Colorado to work with another swimming club, having already, it is believed, qualified for a US lottery visa.

But the claims against him in Ireland followed Gibney to Colorado, even reaching the county sheriff's department, and, according to Jeffco Aquatics which employed him, it became untenable for him to continue working there. The latest word on his whereabouts is that he is working in stock-control for a food company in Denver.

When the IASA decided not to withdraw his honorary life membership of the association at two successive agms, the registrar of the Leinster branch, Mary Kennedy, also an honorary life member, handed hers back in protest.

``I do not consider it is an honour any more to have this,'' she said.

However, Gibney's past activities are determined to haunt him. When yet another former swimmer went to the gardai in January, 1997, and told them that George Gibney had raped her a new investigation was begun.

No decision about a persecution has yet been taken, beset as it is by jurisdiction problems.

Aoife claims that Gibney raped her on a training camp in America but that she only broke her secret after she attempted to drown herself in Dublin Bay three years afterwards.

Since then, her parents say, she has attempted suicide on 38 separate occasions, that she suffers from anorexia and that she has been kept on 24-hour suicide alert in hospital.

Her parents informed both the IASA and its Leinster branch of the episode at two meetings in the summer of 1995.

``He threatened me that if I ever told anybody, he would sue,'' says Aoife. ``He said nobody would believe me and my family would have to sell our home and our car and we would be out on the streets.

``He said it would be his word against ours and who'd believe us?''

After the trauma: the truth at last

Last Monday night an ad hoc group of Derry O'Rourke's victims and their parents spent two hours and 20 minutes spilling out the details of the traumatic years to Sports Minister Jim McDaid in his office on Kildare Street.

When they left the meeting, the father of one of the victims, released a long, weary sigh and said: ``I feel it's the first time in five years that someone has listened to us properly.''

The young woman who had rung the Minister's office to request the meeting last Friday week, after watching Derry O'Rourke being driven to jail for 12 years, had tears in her eyes as she left the Department of Tourism and Sport.

``My biggest regret,'' she said, ``is that it should never have been allowed happen to a lot of the younger girls who were with me in court.''

* The names of swimmers quoted in this article in relation to abuse by George Gibney and Derry O'Rourke have been changed

Most Watched