Sport GAA

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Haunting cases remind us anyone can become victim of abuse

Ronan McCormack who was found guilty of 53 counts of indecent assault
Ronan McCormack who was found guilty of 53 counts of indecent assault
Haunting cases remind us anyone can become victim of abuse
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I love to see my daughters getting involved in sport. Kids need to have interests outside school, things which challenge and bring out the best of them. It gives me a great feeling to see how much enjoyment they get out of athletics and tae-kwon-do and music.

When we talk about these activities, I hear the names of the guys who coach them: Declan in athletics, Dan at martial arts, Keith at band practice. People like this play a special part in your life. You remember them for a long time. I've forgotten most of the stuff I studied in the Leaving but there are matches, races and even training sessions which come back to me clear as day.

My overwhelming feeling towards the people who coached and helped me out then is one of gratitude. I'll always have fond memories of Paddy Nangle and Christy Gallagher at Gaelic football, of John Hogge at soccer and Christine Hannon at badminton. Hardly a week goes by without me thinking fondly of training for athletics with Padraig Callaghan.

I remember all those names. I also remember Ronan McCormack.

Ronan McCormack who trained me for Community Games and, briefly, for Gaelic football. Ronan McCormack who three years ago was jailed for seven years and 10 months, two years suspended, for sexually assaulting five underage footballers from my club between 1981 and 1986.

They were a few years younger than me, those lads. But I knew them, one of them particularly well because he lived just down the road and was a good friend of my brother's. You could not, and I don't exaggerate, have met a nicer man.

I wrote about the McCormack case not just to condemn the perpetrator but to salute the courage of those men who brought him to justice by testifying in court and reliving memories which they admitted had been enormously painful. The case still haunts me. My brothers or I could have been targeted by Ronan McCormack. It was just pure luck that we weren't.

Anyone can become a victim of abuse. The victim contributes nothing to the offence.

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Back in the 1980s, sexual abuse was a taboo subject. Things are different these days. We're all aware of how children have been betrayed by people in positions of authority. I don't live in fear but I'm aware that putting your kids in the hands of someone else does require a certain amount of trust. You let them out into the world and you pray they never meet a Ronan McCormack.

Or a Tom Humphries, who when he met a 14-year-old girl at a camogie event decided to send her a picture of his penis. And, when she asked him not to contact her anymore, embarked on a two-year grooming campaign, sending several thousand texts until finally he succeeded in sexually abusing and defiling her. There are vetting procedures in place now which weren't there in the 1980s but they didn't stop Tom Humphries. A really determined paedophile, one suspects, will always find a way.

By doing so they change what should have been precious memories into nightmares. Fr Brian D'Arcy's comment that Tom Humphries's victim "has got a life sentence" rings true. At the McCormack trial, one of his victims said, "That man has ruined a lot of my life." Another spoke of how heartbreaking it was for him to tell his teenage daughters what had happened to him. Sexual abuse is in a way like an ongoing murder, an assault which continues long after the dates named in court. That is its essential horror.

We overuse the language of morality in sports journalism. We go on about players 'lacking moral courage' when they won't pass the ball short, about 'unforgivable cynicism' when one man pulls another's jersey, or a player making a few bob out of the game 'destroying the spirit of the GAA'. But the Humphries case shows up how meaningless this kind of rhetoric is.

Here was a real moral issue to be addressed. Yet the way in which certain well-known journalists, sportsmen and pundits actually dealt with it betrayed a kind of moral blindness.

In this respect, one of the most jaw-dropping aspects of the whole affair was how, in 2012, David Walsh took umbrage at Matt Cooper's suggestion that Tom Humphries was in the same league as Lance Armstrong. Not at all, said Walsh, before embarking upon one more defence of Humphries.

Walsh was right but not in the way he thought. There is no comparison between Armstrong and Humphries. Doping might be an offence against the spirit of sport but child sexual abuse is an offence against the spirit of humanity and in particular against the spirit of the abused child. The happiness of one child is worth every Tour de France ever raced.

I salute everyone who finds the courage to stand up against their abusers. I don't think I would be so brave. And I hope that in the end Tom Humphries's victim can find some kind of peace. That is the most important thing of all about this case.

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