Wednesday 18 July 2018

GAA constantly tweaks child protection measures to keep pace with changing times

Michael Feeney leaving court in Ballybay. Photo: John McAviney/McCamera
Michael Feeney leaving court in Ballybay. Photo: John McAviney/McCamera

Dermot Crowe

Twenty years ago the GAA became aware of allegations of sexual abuse of children against one of its more prominent members, the Ulster Council's first full-time secretary, Michael Feeney. While Feeney, 65 at the time, was closely identified with the GAA, the abuse did not occur in his time as Ulster secretary nor during GAA activity. There was still scope for serious damage to the GAA, however, given his position at the time as one of their leading administrators.

Feeney had been a long-serving GAA delegate, first elected to the Ulster Council in 1959, and also serving terms as chairman and secretary of Monaghan County Board. He would be convicted in 2000 of a series of offences against young boys and girls which occurred over a 20-year period. Before becoming a full-time GAA employee in 1989, he had worked as a school teacher for many years.

While the investigation into the allegations were under way, the GAA faced a challenge of morals and governance. "No sporting organisation had guidelines or direction as to how to handle these particular situations at that time," explains Danny Lynch, who was then serving as the GAA's PRO. By coincidence, Lynch had shared a flat in his earlier years with a clinical psychologist. He made contact and sought his counsel. "I asked him to come on board with a HR specialist and also got a lot of help and aid from the INTO (Irish National Teachers' Association), who had long experience of this because of having to handle it in the teaching profession.

"So the GAA, independent of any sports council or any outside pressure from anybody, formed their own guidelines in child protection."

The child abuse case involving Tom Humphries, a former juvenile mentor, has again raised concerns and made a dark subject topical. It has reinforced the need for vigilance. But there are limitations to any regulations or safeguards and they only act effectively within the GAA framework.

Since 2009 the GAA has vetted more juvenile mentors than any other sporting organisation in the country, in the region of 130,000, and 20,000 more will have been vetted when this year is complete. But vetting can't anticipate somebody with a clean slate offending.

"First of all, no matter what guidelines are in place, something like the Tom Humphries situation could not be predicted," says Lynch. "He was cleaner than clean, whiter than white, he did not show up in any vetting or anything like that."

But the GAA has a strong track record in providing all the safeguards that are necessary to minimise risk, if not totally obliterate it. After Lynch retired his position in 2008, the GAA appointed a full-time national children's officer. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl had a solid grounding in the area of child protection having served as president of the Youth Council of Ireland. Under his direction vetting started, initially piloted in November 2008 before being launched north and south the next year. Last year vetting was made obligatory by law.

The GAA has now decided that any juvenile mentor working with children must be vetted and also have two mandatory qualifications, namely a foundation coaching course and a child protection awareness certificate, or they won't be allowed mentor from the start of next year. At Congress 2011, a motion was passed enabling the roles of county and club children's officer to be written into the Official Guide. Those officers have been tasked with the duty of ensuring compliance under the GAA's children's welfare code. According to Ó Maoilmhicihíl, a comprehensive audit of more than 130,000 respondents from clubs showed that there was almost total compliance with these requirements. The take-up has been very encouraging.

After being appointed in 2008 Ó Maoilmhichíl set about establishing a code of best practice which took the guts of two years to finalise. "In 2010 we agreed it," he says. "And then we gradually introduced it to camogie and ladies' football until in 2014 the three associations agreed on the one code."

He says the manner in which the GAA deals with allegations of abuse is very similar to the stance Danny Lynch took 20 years ago. "We are seen as one of the strictest sporting organisations in dealing with people who have in any way abused children. It is a bit of a crude term but we still have zero tolerance."

The emergence of e-vetting has made the process much more straight forward for volunteers than previously when it tended to take longer and involved considerable paperwork. "I wouldn't lie to you," says Ó Maoilmhichíl, "if you went on it today I would say you would have it completed in nine days. It is this office in Croke Park that makes every single decision regarding vetting. We don't want anyone taking a short-cut at local level."

The response on the ground has been to embrace the changes rather than resist them. "There is a new wave of coaches out there. They are young parents, turning up with their five or six-year-olds and demanding that these services be provided. They don't bat an eyelid," says Ó Maoilmhichíl.

"I will tell you a good one. If you take the fact that we have vetted over 130,000 since 2009, in all that time only one person came to me on the phone irate and said that he wouldn't be vetted. He would give up his job rather than be vetted. The reason he wouldn't be vetted is he did not recognise the Free State. He had a strong Republican background and as he said himself he would not bend the knee to the Free State."

Danny Lynch recalls that most of the cases in his time involving GAA members did not take place in the course of GAA activity. But it was one of those, Feeney's high profile case, that provided the "catalyst" for the GAA to introduce measures to offer greater protection to children playing Gaelic games. From 1997 to 2008, when he stepped down, Lynch was at the centre of all that moved in the field, handling all the issues and the evolution of guidelines.

"The other sporting organisations like the IRFU and the FAI, I remember," he says, "they came to us to have a look at what we were doing. And by and large, it is safe to say that they would have used our experience in developing their own practices. The Irish Sports Council only became involved with us at a later date."

With Lynch's hand on many of the scripts, GAA presidents' speeches at Congress began to deal with the issue for the first time, mirroring the increasing prevalence of child abuse in Irish society. Each club and county board were introduced to new guidelines and Lynch toured the country to raise awareness and provide help and information. "We were giving clear direction, if an issue arose, as to how it should be handled. And more importantly how any potential issue could be pre-empted."

When faced with a serious allegation against its members, the GAA decided to suspend them while they were under investigation. "Initially we met with some resistance," says Lynch, "because there was a school of thought that a guy was innocent until proven guilty, but on the basis of advice we would suspend anyone from all GAA activities. They wouldn't be allowed sell a lottery ticket. We felt we had to take a hard line on it."

Former GAA president Liam O'Neill acknowledges Lynch's role in laying the foundation for the code of practice in place today. "There was a lot of criticism within the GAA of Danny Lynch at times, but this is an area he was exceptional on," says O'Neill. "He was very good in other areas too but he was absolutely tops on this. By the nature of the work it wouldn't have been known outside the office or a small group of people how effective he was. But he left a great legacy."

O'Neill says Ó Maoilmhichíl shoulders "tremendous responsibility" in his role as child welfare and safeguarding manager. "This area," explains O'Neill, "it is like mercury; you think you have it nailed down, and then it changes. It is one area where you are always playing catch-up, not on basic principle - they are very strong - but who thought back then (in Lynch's time) it was possible to contact a child by text? You have to be racing all the time to keep up with the game."

O'Neill, a primary school principal, is unequivocal on the subject. "I would say there is no grey area in child abuse. I think we have to draw a line. We have to stand with the children. Children need to be safe first. I would say the same about school. They need to be safe and they need to be happy. Child safety is paramount. I think we all have to learn from this, that if you behave inappropriately with a child, you are on your own."

Ó Maoilmhichíl understands how the GAA has to adapt and constantly revise its practices. "There is no time in child welfare to be resting on your laurels. You can always have the bar higher. When I came in here nine years ago, I mean we didn't have to worry about social media. But now the 10-year-old has two phones. They would buy and sell you as regards social media, we therefore have to train our people to be equally proficient in social media techniques."

The Humphries case, he feels, won't dissuade mentors or damage the GAA.

"I think it is the opposite. When we brought in vetting in 2009 people said, well, you will lose your volunteers. This single case means that there should be additional vigilance and additional awareness, full knowledge of the code and thereafter people will implement it as part of good practice. If somebody is going out to coach kids on Saturday morning, what happened (in this case) will lead to a great commitment to be vigilant. It will help rather than hinder."

Lynch agrees with that line. "The GAA has been pro-active - they have done everything they possibly could. If there is a flaw in all this I think the GAA's recent lack of clarification and communication has left something to be desired. In the sense I don't think that the GAA has anything to be fearful of, to be sorry about, but the issue has been allowed to run and run without any clarification.

"You don't want to introduce so many impediments and so many checks and balances that people just won't volunteer any more. That does not mean we should compromise the safety of children but there has to be a balance. Otherwise we are going to end up with a sedentary, obese problem way worse that what we have now."

He speaks of the threat of "paralysis" in the system - "discouraging ordinary decent God-fearing people from becoming involved in voluntary work with kids. There is a lot of common sense that comes into this as well. In the old days you would have six or seven in a car and you'd drop them off one by one. You now never let yourself be left alone with a child and it is just a simple precaution."

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