Wednesday 24 January 2018

Hold the Back Page: Courage takes many forms

Eamonn Sweeney

This is a story about five brave men from Sligo. It is about the children they were and what was done to those children. But it is also about how they tried to put things right. It is about evil and innocence, the past and the present, abuse and the shadows it cast on the lives of those who endured it. But most of all it is about the bravery of those men and how that enabled justice to finally be done.

If you find it a hard story to read, I don't blame you. But these men deserve to be honoured and their story told.

I have been thinking a lot this past week about a kid I knew when I was growing up in the south Sligo village of Gurteen 30-odd years ago. He was a friend of one of my brothers who spent long hours playing with him at the lad's home. He'd be in our house too a couple of times a week, before and after training with the soccer team my father ran and whose pitch was behind our house.

My late father had great time for this boy. Everyone did. The guys on the team were good lads in general but this particular kid was notable for his complete lack of malice. He had no bad word or thought for anyone and he was one of those lads who took such joy out of the game it reminded you why you'd become involved in sport in the first place. My father picked him in almost every position on the field because the youngster, who was just entering his teens, was so full of enthusiasm he didn't care where he played.

I can't stress too much how decent this boy was. It's hard for anyone who didn't know him to imagine just how much niceness was his distinguishing characteristic, the way tallness or a stutter might have been in another boy. You felt better for knowing him.

I've been thinking of him because on Tuesday last at Sligo Circuit Court Ronan McCormack was convicted on 53 charges of indecent assault against five boys aged between nine and 13. The offences took place between October 1981 and August 1986. My brother's friend, the kid who never thought badly of anyone, was one of the five. I knew three of the others, trained for Community Games with one of them, helped train a team which included one, went to school with another.

And I knew Ronan McCormack. In 1980 he helped coach the Eastern Harps under 14 Gaelic football team I trained with. That was his first time to be involved at underage level with the club. He'd been a player a few years previously. The year after that he would become manager of the under 12 team and it was in this capacity that he molested four of his victims, the other one he came into contact with through a family friendship.

One extract from the trial will suffice to give a flavour of McCormack's offences. One witness told the court how McCormack had asked him to come to the All-Ireland football semi-final between Galway and Donegal in 1983. "He told me I would have to stay over at his house the night before the match as he wanted to get to early Mass at 7.30 before getting the train to Dublin. He said he had only one bed made up and that we'll have to sleep in the one bed. I put on my pyjamas and we got into the single bed. He came into the bed a couple of minutes later and he was naked. He immediately opened my pyjamas."

According to the court report in The Sligo Champion, "The witness said that the accused fondled his genital area for between five and 10 minutes. Through light that was coming in the door, the witness said he could see the accused gyrating. He was also groaning and moaning. The accused kept repeating the words, 'don't be shy.' Before leaving the room, the accused fondled him again."

McCormack brought an 11-year-old into his bedroom to look for a county championship medal and sexually assaulted him there. He assaulted the boys in his car, in his kitchen and on fishing trips to a local lake. He even assaulted one victim in the boy's own home when the child's mother had left the room.

McCormack trained me briefly for football but more often for Community Games in athletics. It wasn't just people at Eastern Harps who were taken in by him. He had a reputation for being an expert on physical fitness and was an unusually taciturn man who never really looked you in the eye. He also possessed enormous self-belief, a couple of weeks after taking over the under 14 team he changed it entirely, changing forwards to backs, backs to forwards and the midfielders to full-back and full-forward. We lost our next game by 11 points but he seemed utterly unperturbed. In an easy going area he possessed an unusual and slightly intimidating air of authority though no one quite knew where this authority derived from.

As time passed, rumours about him circulated among the boys. He seemed dodgy in some way we perhaps couldn't define. But when I saw the reports of this trial, before he had been found guilty and his victims requested his anonymity be waived, Ronan McCormack was the first man I thought of.

Eastern Harps was run by men of the utmost integrity who played a huge part in my childhood. I cannot imagine that they would for one second have countenanced any harm coming to children at the club. It would simply not have been in their nature.

But in 1987 rumours reached the ears of club officials. A couple of mothers apparently did not want McCormack bringing their children to training, there was a story that one father had chased the coach away from his house and one about a child who'd refused to ever go fishing with him again. Officials made inquiries among the boys and while no one would make a specific allegation they were aware of an unease among some players about McCormack. They immediately removed him from his post as under 12 manager. He did not object and has not been involved with the club subsequently.

In the intervening years the victims got on with their lives. It's probable that all of them were deeply troubled by what had happened but the trauma had a particularly disruptive effect on the lives of some of the men. The first statement regarding the abuse was allegedly made over a decade ago but the victim was apparently told that in the absence of further evidence it was just his word against his abuser's. He refused to let it lie and in 2010 other victims made the statements which led to the trial.

It is impossible to overstate the bravery of the men who stood up in court to confront McCormack. Male sexual assault remains a taboo subject in society and to confront painful childhood memories in a courtroom must have been a hugely traumatic experience. When McCormack was convicted one of his victims wept in court.

The fact that McCormack chose to plead not guilty meant they had no choice but to go through this ordeal. That they did so is hugely to the credit of the men and their families. There appears to be huge respect and support for them locally. And while there is laudable concern for the effect of the case on McCormack's family, for the perpetrator himself there seems to be nothing but revulsion.

Eastern Harps is a club which has been struck by tragedy in the past. In 1998 three young men from the club, Bobby Taylor, Michael Higgins and Tommy Coyle were drowned at Strandhill; two years later one of the club's star players Sean Flannery and Mark Hannon were electrocuted in a freak accident.

And this is not the first time that the ghost of sexual abuse has haunted the area.

A former under 12 team-mate of mine was awarded €325,000 in the High Court in 2003, arising out of allegations that he was sexually abused in his house by a member of the Kiltegan Fathers while his father lay on his deathbed with cancer. The man in question endured a horrendous life for years after the abuse. Now there is speculation about a possible link between sexual abuse and the suicides of a couple of local men in particular.

But if the awful revelations of the last couple of decades have taught us anything it is that these horrors are not confined to any one area. Or to any one sport for that matter. When the revelations about George Gibney and Derry O'Rourke came to light, we wondered if there was something about swim coaching which might attract paedophiles. The reality is that, for whatever reason, paedophilia was far more prevalent in Irish society than anyone suspected. It was everywhere. There is nothing strange or anomalous about south Sligo, a part of the country mostly populated, like everywhere else, by decent people.

I would imagine that there is a great deal of hurt in Gurteen and Keash and Ballinafad, the areas which make up Eastern Harps, at the moment. My memory of growing up is of an innocent childhood in an innocent area. But the problem with innocence is that it can be abused. That is what Ronan McCormack did and what men like him continue to do.

Because this is not a problem confined to the past. It's true that child protection guidelines are in place these days whereas back in the mid-80s most people wouldn't even have known they were needed. But there is, for example, a high-profile case of this nature currently in court where the alleged offences are claimed to have taken place in recent years. You can never to be too careful when it comes to child protection. Never be afraid to voice your doubts, silence and embarrassment are the abuser's friend.

I say that as a father who loves to see his own children taking part in sports and who appreciates the work done by volunteers all over the country, volunteers whose work has a shadow cast briefly but unavoidably over it by horrific cases like this one.

When I see my kids play sport I remember joyfully what it was like to be 11 or 12 in Gurteen and to be heading over to The Canon's Field or Conlon's Field when the evenings were getting longer, the days were getting warmer and I was carrying my Puma football boots in a white plastic bag and there seemed no better place to be in the world. But now I think of how so many of the youngsters who made that journey were heading towards a nightmare.

What happened to them was rotten and poisonous but, as Judge Petria McDonnell told the jurors in the case, "the complainants were dishonoured as children and you have now honoured them."

By coming forward they have not just won justice for themselves but they will have encouraged anyone else struggling with a similar situation to come forward. I am proud to come from the same part of the world as them.

I am sorry the boys I knew had to endure so much and that back then we didn't know what they were going through. And I wish them peace now that the story is coming to an end. Because once they walked into the Garda stations to make their statements this stopped being a story about Ronan McCormack.

Instead it became the story of five men from Sligo. Five brave men from Sligo.

backpage@independent.ie

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