Tuesday 11 December 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Humphries, Walsh, Cusack...The Shame Game

Tom Humphries and (inset) Donal Óg Cuask and David Walsh
Tom Humphries and (inset) Donal Óg Cuask and David Walsh
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Back on Christmas Day of 2012, the first book taken from a pile of literary presents that would fill a library was always going to be 'Seven Deadly Sins'. It consumed many of the following hours as, despite the great reviews, it surpassed them, with David Walsh documenting his pursuit of Lance Armstrong. But even with the quality of the story and the telling, ultimately it wasn't any of the first 423 pages that would leave an aftertaste. Instead it was a couple of sentences on page 424.

There in the acknowledgments Walsh wrote: "At the Olympics in Atlanta, we [he and Paul Kimmage] cut our teeth on the Michelle Smith story and were inspired by the work of our colleague Tom Humphries who is, by some distance, the most talented sportswriter I've ever read. A fine man, too." Maybe there ought to have been an eighth deadly sin in the mind of the author.

Those last four words were honed and pointed, penned by a man who is famed for understanding the power of them and for using them as if food in a famine. In April 2011, Humphries was named by the Sunday World as the sportswriter involved in allegations involving the abuse of an underage girl and by September 2012 he had been brought in for questioning but didn't make any admissions. Still, sources have said that the evidence was overwhelming to the point that in February 2014, the director of public prosecutions instructed that he be charged. Yet right in the middle of that timeline, Walsh released his book where he strongly backed his old friend.

Behind the scenes he'd done so in other ways too. Journalist Paul Howard remembers how he received a call from Walsh around that time. As he puts it: "David was involved in setting up a sports magazine, essentially for the benefit of Tom, who couldn't work. I couldn't believe what I was hearing when he got in touch." Walsh also did an interview for Matt Cooper's 'The Last Word' when launching his tome in 2012, although it wasn't aired until recently due to an editorial call as the case was still due before the courts.

In that interview he stated: "I know Tom and I've known him for a long time and he's a great, great man... In my view he is a fine man, and I will always believe that. I maybe know a bit more than most people about the charges and the situation that Tom has found himself in. There's no question in my mind that he is a fine man."

Next asked about the parallels and hypocrisy versus his attitude to Armstrong, his tone changed as we got insight into the tell-tale lack of priorities in ranking the two incomparable cases. "No I think the comparison you made is odious," he retorted. "Completely inappropriate. All I will say about the Tom situation is that I know a damn sight more about it than most people and I believe Tom is a fine man and, in the end, that will come out and people will understand he's a fine man. I guarantee you anyone who knows Tom and has remained in touch with him over the last two-and-a-half years will offer you exactly the same view I have. Tom has shown himself to be a fine man."

But consider what Walsh said he knew, "more than anyone else". Consider the natural insinuation that his claim made against the girl who has asked not to be called a victim, showing remarkable strength after all that she's been forced to endure for so many years. Consider the stance he chose to take in the middle of that on-going investigation. Consider his view of a fine man.

A couple of weeks back in court the details emerged. How Humphries gained access to the girl at just 14 via the camogie team he was training. How she was vulnerable due to an eating disorder. How 16,000 texts were exchanged in a three-month period (Between December 2010 and March 2011 when she was 16), nearly half between 10pm and 6am. How those texts became sexual and she asked him to stop. How he didn't. How he met the girl in 2010 and took her to his apartment and engaged in oral sex. How that was just the start.

It was disgusting, disturbing and vile. And while Humphries admitted guilt and was sentenced on Tuesday, two letters were read out as character references during the trial. One was by Donál Óg Cusack who had both his book and some columns ghost-written by Humphries. The other was written by David Walsh, Chief Sports Writer of the Sunday Times, there to the very end.

After all this, while no one is venturing anywhere near guilt by association, those two have come across badly. Due to their actions. Via their words.

                                                                                       * * * * * * * * *

There's a heart-wrenching story that took place at the clubhouse of a prominent GAA club in the midst of this tragedy. Tom Humphries was inside, having a drink at the bar with an adult female member. Outside in the car park was the girl he groomed and was continuing to groom. We can never comprehend what was going through her mind nor should we have the arrogance to attempt to, but she was in tears and in view. And still this was allowed to go on.

But now that we all know what really happened, this aftermath has been at best troubling. After judge Karen O'Connor raised the list of issues, she only handed down a two-and-a-half year sentence, shortened by taking the concurrent option and espousing certain rationale. Amongst them was a "sympathy" she claimed to feel for a child abuser, but went further. She said the higher the profile of someone the greater the fall, raising the question of whether that fall should somehow be lessened as a result? She also referred to the two letters written by Walsh and Cusack as being given consideration in her verdict.

In sports journalism we like to tell athletes to look in the mirror when it comes to the relative trivialities of that world, but what about turning the mirror on ourselves after this? Just consider one article run by the Irish Times just after the sentencing, which was subsequently altered. In it were 40 paragraphs, where the opening 37 were a tribute to Humphries and his work over the years. Only at the end did it mention why he was in the news. It would be like the maths community celebrating the theorems of Ted Kaczynski.

We've bemoaned omerta in sport but here we tread softly, softly around this. We go after Martin O'Neill's gameplan and Jim Gavin's attitude with gusto and intent but here? Indeed in terms of Walsh and Cusack, they as sports writers and broadcasters have gone after cyclists looking to get ahead with needles and the Cork County board as if that's as low as it gets. It's not even close.

Humphries has now been dealt with, but that should not be the end of this for there's an awful lot to learn and an awful lot of people that need to learn. And while Humphries is of course the principal character aside from the poor woman, others shouldn't squirm free.

The whole idea of character references in such cases are questionable but they are also a common feature with credit usually given by a judge for elements like a guilty plea, lack of a previous criminal record, good character in the past and so on. The intention of a defence team in submitting these letters is to mitigate the sentence, however there are no clear guidelines for what weight a judge should give to different factors if any at all. Therefore we don't know how much reflection this judge gave to Walsh's and Cusack's testimonials. 

We, though, have to give them plenty.

Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should for can you imagine the reaction to people vouching for a priest who had done this? So why is it any different? Where once a collar put you above your actions, what we've had here is men of stature trying to influence the sentence of an admitted child abuser based on a talent that earned middle-class respectability.

It wasn't what he did, it was who he was. We thought we were past this.

How often have you now read that Humphries is "a former Irish Times journalist"? That's been the go-to and, while factually true, compare with how often you've read he was the GAA mentor to the girl he abused. It came out in court that that was the avenue she believed he got her number from which, while difficult, makes this a GAA story as well as so much more. And yet, in that sphere across this whole depressing case, Colm Cooper's testimonial has been all the rage. Surely those getting worked up there should be seething about this and refusing to let it go. Only we haven't seen that. There've been precious few in the media willing to tackle this issue.

And what of Walsh, the chief sports writer of his major newspaper?

In his initial statement to the Sunday Times which was published without the chance to ask follow-up questions in the sort of journalism he would decry, he tried to qualify his actions rather than apologise for them. Worse was his use of language where he mentioned "the girl whose trust Tom betrayed" rather than being direct and mentioning the child he groomed and then defiled. That trivialised the offence and the horrific damage done. He added: "I wrote a personal character reference for Tom because we have been friends for 30 years and, despite the serious wrong he had done, I could not abandon him." That is not good enough. In fact it's disturbing.

There has since been a drip of further comments from Walsh. A quote read: "I've taken more than a few hits arising out of this and am feeling more than a little bruised. As result I prefer not to say anything at the moment." The ego, hypocrisy and selfishness was jaw dropping. Did he not think the girl in question felt more than a little bruised when he chose to comment anyway in a far more important way? Later on Tuesday after sentencing he released another statement where he apologised for his 2012 interview with Matt Cooper but added "In writing a character reference for Tom I was not in any way condoning the crime for which he has now been sentenced".

So what of Cusack too, who at least released a statement apologising, resigned from the Clare hurlers for whatever reason and stood down from the Irish Sports Council for this very reason. But a reaction doesn't always negate an action.

Writing a character reference for a child abuser isn't merely some "lack of judgment" as he saw it. He went on to say he "was just trying to help a human in a dark place" as if Humphries is the victim. Furthermore he talked about Humphries' history of volunteerism as if a good thing when that's exactly how the then child believed he got access. Meanwhile, beyond that he set the cause of sports volunteerism back half a century to dark times. Therefore that is not good enough either nor was his statement being released late on Saturday 14th October as, while the timing may or may not have been intentional, the result was that it didn't make many of the morning papers, so those streaming out from mass wouldn't see what he'd done.

Besides, there were earlier chances to address this terrible situation as a week earlier Cusack was at the GAA minor All Stars. Two days before them, media were told judges would be available for interview with him among them, but that was changed as some were said to have "conflicting commitments". Ultimately the entire day became an invite-only, private event with Cusack refusing to stop to talk to reporters at the Croke Park gates on the way in or, six hours later, on the way back out.

It was a moment that summed up the fleeing for cover by many who are near this story, via their choices. Cusack has added that he won't be commenting further but there are many questions that need answers. For instance, when did Humphries ghost his columns until as, in many cases, the standard and style mimicked and matched that of Humphries who had done his autobiography? Did Humphries work on them and thus receive payment indirectly when in the Irish Examiner as the paper itself told us their "only dealings were in signing off invoices and they were only to Donál Óg's bank account and we never paid anyone else"?

These are reasonable and crucial queries that don't implicate Cusack, but that he needs to address. Walsh has addressing to do too as he carries on as Sunday Times chief sports writer, casting judgment on mere sport. Both men's credibility ought to be shot rather than this simply going away.

Long before Walsh's book, before Cusack's sporting exploits, before Humphries was writing columns on how the screening of GAA volunteers was wrong, what we thought to be a very different Ireland existed. For younger generations, they've since struggled to understand how many shocking abuses happened to those most vulnerable back then, and how those with influence did little. Maybe now though they'll get it for despite the modern veneer, there's something very old Ireland about this whole episode.

For shame.

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