Tuesday 23 January 2018

Martin Breheny: GAA have implemented robust child protection policies but vigilance from everyone is essential

GAA have implemented robust child protection policies
GAA have implemented robust child protection policies
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If there's any good to emerge from the Tom Humphries case - and frankly it's not easily located - it comes from the increased awareness the sordid affair will have on sporting and other organisations in their dealings with young people.

Codes of practice and detailed protocols are fine on paper but they provide no guarantees against deviousness and manipulation if the perpetrator is sufficiently skilled in such dark and sinister arts.

Clare coach Donal Óg Cusack. Photo: Sportsfile
Clare coach Donal Óg Cusack. Photo: Sportsfile

In fact, nothing can provide full protection against a cunning predator but a heightened sense of awareness, which will inevitably arise from the Humphries case, can minimise the risk.

The first responsibility is to have structures in place so that everyone involved with under 18s knows exactly what's required to provide a safe environment in and around a club.

The GAA has that under its Child Welfare and Protection provisions, which also apply to the camogie, ladies football and handball associations.

Headed by national children's officer Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl and run from Croke Park, it oversees all strands across the protection area in order to provide as many safeguards as possible for the Association's younger members, while also trying to ensure that adults dealing with various teams have their rights protected too.

Every club and county has a children's officer, charged with responsibility for implementing the detailed guidelines.

The GAA's code of best practice is widely recognised as being possibly the best in the country, a point made by Fergus Finlay, chief executive of children's' charity Barnardos, on the 'Today with Seán O'Rourke' programme on RTé radio yesterday.

"I know as a matter of fact that nobody takes the business of child protection more seriously in Ireland than the GAA do. They do a sterling job in terms of trying to ensure that everyone involved in and around children makes it safe to be there. Of course, now and again, people slip through the net," he said.

Humphries was the latest example of someone who slipped through the net, with devastating consequences for a girl who never thought that her involvement in a sport she loved would have been exploited in such a sordid way.

Coverage of the case over the last two days has focused mainly on widespread unease over the leniency of his sentence and the actions of Dónal óg Cusack, and sports writer David Walsh, both of whom provided character references for Humphries.

Their interventions were inexplicable, since presumably the purpose of the letters was to influence the judge when she came to handing down a sentence.

Fergus Finlay. Photo: Sportsfile
Fergus Finlay. Photo: Sportsfile

Cusack acknowledged "a lack of judgement in this situation for which I am truly sorry" and has also resigned from Sport Ireland and from his coaching role with Clare hurlers.

Walsh has stuck to a 'friend of Tom' explanation, also stating that he was not "in any way condoning the crime for which he has now been sentenced."

The unanswered question that now arises is whether the two letters contributed to Humphries receiving a shorter-than-expected sentence and, if so, whether Cusack and Walsh are happy that they played a role in that.

The judge said that she carefully considered the content of the two testimonials.

When the furore over this case subsides, attention will turn to its possible impact on sporting organisations.

As ever, the GAA is in the front line, but the national children's officer believes that their protection policies are as robust as they possibly can be.

"There may be a fear out there that this could impact on the role of volunteers in sport but I don't think it will. In fact, if it's properly addressed, it can help copperfasten child protection practices," said ó Maoilmhichíl.

"It will make people more vigilant. We have procedures in the GAA that will stand the test of time. Still, if even one person infiltrated the system for their own devious purposes, it shows the need for increased vigilance. You can never be too careful in this area.

practice "We can create and espouse policy and train people but when it comes to best practice, you need good people on the ground making sure everything is done properly. We have thousands of them all over the country - they do an excellent job."

Strict regulations apply before a person can become involved in any role with under 18s. That includes Garda-vetting, an area where the GAA has worked assiduously in recent years. Over 130,000 people have been vetted in the Republic alone since 2010, with this year's figure currently on 19,200.

"We have done more than any other agency or organisation in the country across the area of child protection.

"People demand high standards when their children become involved with clubs and our procedures are the best you can get.

"Of course, if someone is devious enough to work at finding a way around them, it can be very hard to detect," said ó Maoilmhichíl.

"That's where vigilance comes in, vigilance from everyone involved with youngsters so that if anything inappropriate is even suspected, it's dealt with through the proper channels which are available in every club."

Irish Independent

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