Sport GAA

Saturday 26 May 2018

Paul Kimmage: Low lie the fields of Athenry - The GAA story every parent will want to read

St. Mary's Gaa Club, Athenry, Galway
St. Mary's Gaa Club, Athenry, Galway

Last week, Galway club St Mary’s was suspended from all juvenile hurling and football activity until it complies with the findings of a recent GAA investigation. The hearing followed over a year of claims and counter-claims which have rocked the fabled hurling nursery. The Sunday Independent has been tracking the events which led to such severe sanctions and today brings the inside story of how it came to this

No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where would we be?"

George Orwell,

‘'Animal Farm'

 

Let's start with the ads. The two mammies chatting in the car as their boys play football in the Londis ad. The rugby-obsessed kid who discovers he's being trained by Paul O'Connell ("I'll take it from here") in the Lidl ad. And — my favourite — the before and after scenes in the Avonmore ad where a team of young boys are sitting in a dressing room with their coach.

In the 'before' scene, he is boosting their confidence before they run onto the field: "It's a beautiful day," he announces, "perfect for our passing game." The cue for a sudden crack of thunder and a torrent of rain: "Okay, plan B," he shrugs. "Let's get stuck into them!" And the boys cheer.

In the 'after' scene, the kids have returned to the dressing room with drenched and muddied faces. The coach smiles and extends his arms: "Okay lads, very proud of you, 12 goals." The cue for a magical pause: "They'd have scored at least 15 against anyone else!" And the boys cheer.

You've seen it, right? And — just guessing here — you like what you see? What's not to love about a coach like that? And kids like those? And the collective joy when winning isn't the only thing? You're thinking: 'This is how it's supposed to be.' It's what we're being sold by the governing bodies every day:

"The IRFU seeks to promote the welfare of all Age-Grade Players so that they develop to the best of their ability in a safe and fun environment. We want to welcome young people to the game so that they can thrive in our care."

"The Football Association of Ireland is committed to ensuring that children can participate in all football activities in a safe environment . . . Participation in football should be fun, enjoyable and provide a platform to learn and develop life skills, make new friends and enhance personal growth. The safety and welfare of all children is paramount."

"The Gaelic Athletic Association is committed to creating and maintaining the safest possible environment for all young people who wish to participate in our Gaelic Games and activities. We will take all practicable steps to protect them from discernible forms of abuse — from harm, discrimination or degrading treatment and shall respect their rights, wishes and feelings."

The message is clear: 'Send us your kids. We'll take care of them.'

Really?

 

* * * * *

 

St Mary's, Athenry is one of the most fabled clubs in the GAA. Eight county championships, eight provincial titles and three All-Irelands, this is hurling country, and home to some of the best to have played the game: Eugene Cloonan and PJ Molloy and Joe Rabbitte and Brian Hanley and Michael Crimmins and Pascal Healy and Cathal Moran and Brian Feeney and Gerry Keane and Brendan Keogh.  

Our story begins on a warm Friday evening at their training ground in Carnaun where a father is sitting in his car with the window down, and two mothers are chatting by the perimeter fence as a group of young hurlers — the St Mary's under 12s — are taking instructions from a mentor. The word ‘fuck' can be heard by the father.

Paddy Kelly is not like the guy in the Avonmore ad. A devoted and loyal servant to the club, he has been coaching kids for years and lets them know when they don't perform. Does the father get out of his car and remind him that coaches should lead by example? He does not. Do the mothers complain that the use of foul language is a breach of the Code of Best Practice? They do not.

It's just Paddy being Paddy.

"What the fuck did you do that for?"

"What is wrong with that boy?"

"Will you fucking move to fuck!"

But not everyone agrees.

In November 2016, the abusive language and some other issues are raised by parents at the Athenry Juvenile AGM.

A month later, on December 13, two members of the "concerned parents of the U-11/U12 Hurling team" delivered a letter to the Athenry club chairman, Sean Keane, outlining their disappointment with the standard of training. There were 16 signatories to the letter.

They wrote: "For the coming season and in the future, we are asking you, the Senior Club, to take a careful interest in the Juvenile Club to ensure that the welfare of our children is fully protected."

They said they wanted their children to keep playing for the club but were worried this might not happen. "We write this letter to prevent any unpleasantness in the future," they concluded.

The month is February, 2017. Two 10-year-old boys — upset by the language and atmosphere on the team — decide they would rather play for the under 14s. There are some training sessions with a new coach, Eddie Brady, and they are invited to join the older boys for a game in Loughrea.

That's when the meltdown begins.

'Complainant A', the father of one of the boys, drops his son at the dressing room door and is sitting in the stands as the team runs on to the field. He spots the coach, Brady, and then scans all the jerseys but can't find his son. A moment later, the club's juvenile secretary, John Cloonan, enters the field, and a moment after that his son finally appears.

The game begins and dad thinks no more of it. He has no idea his son is upset until a neighbour's boy comes rushing into the stand and explains what happened.

Two days later, on Monday, March 13, he places a call to Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl, the National Children's Officer in Croke Park, that goes straight to voicemail: "I'm not available right now, please leave a message. Go raibh maith agat."

He calls again.

"I'm not available right now."

And again.

"I'm not available right now."

And again.

"I'm not available right now."

And is almost spitting blood when he finally gets through.

ó Maoilmhichíl cautions him for his emotive language and insists that he cannot consider any complaint that is not made in writing. He also advises that there are structures in place at both club and county levels to deal with the issues he has raised. But the father has been to the club and is not for turning:

 

Dear Gearoid,

Following on from our telephone conversation, during which you advised me to put any complaints I had in writing, we (the letter is co-signed by his wife) wish to report an incident which took place involving our son and the Athenry GAA Juvenile Club Secretary John Cloonan. The incident occurred on Saturday 11th March 2017 at the dressing rooms of the Loughrea Hurling Grounds before the start of an U14 Championship hurling match between Athenry and Loughrea.

After togging out with the rest of the Athenry team, and just as the team began to run on to the pitch for the start of the game, our son and another player were asked to stay back in the dressing room by John Cloonan (who incidentally is not a selector or manager of this team). John shoved the door out, and at this point our son and the other player were on their own in the dressing room with John. What happened next is as follows: John Cloonan told our son and the other player that they "got a jersey to play today, but it would be the last time they would get an Athenry jersey."

The way in which John Cloonon prevented (our son) from leaving the dressing room with his team, and then the subsequent manner in which John spoke to our son in the dressing room has made (our son) to feel very intimidated. Moreover we feel quite strongly that John Cloonan has breached Underage Code of Behaviour guidelines insofar as he spoke to our son alone, contrary to the recommendation given in the GAA publication "our Games Our Code" page 9, where it states (that coaches should) ‘be accompanied by at least (bold) one other adult at coaching sessions, games and in underage team dressing rooms.'

We wish to report this to you Gearoid, as we feel very strongly that we would not get a fair hearing from our own club. Thank you for taking the time to read our letter and we look forward to hearing from you.

 

It wasn't the first time ó Maoilmhichíl had been served notice of problems at Athenry.

In July 2015, the parents of a 12-year-old boy had lodged a complaint with St Mary's and the Garda Síochána, alleging that a coach had grabbed their son and another player, and shoved them into the dugout during a game.

The case foundered. The complainants felt their son was then being marginalised; the club felt it was doing what it could to include him.

ó Maoilmhichíl extended his sympathies but could offer little else.

"I hope," he wrote, "that as we are now aware that the findings following your complaint indicated that it was not possible to pursue any action against the named coach that it will be possible, once we are assured of the full implementation of the Code of Behaviour in the Club, that your son may wish to and be permitted to return at some stage in the future to playing with his Club again. Much I am sure will be learned from what has happened."

But two years later, what exactly had been learned?

On March 28, 2017, five days after alerting the Galway County Board to the letter he had received about the incident in Loughrea, ó Maoilmhichíl sent a recommendation to the county secretary, John Hynes. "A preliminary appraisal of what has been forwarded to us might suggest that the matter could be dealt with as an alleged breach of the Code of Best Practice in Youth Sport."

Hynes sought advice from Pat Monaghan, the County Children's Officer, who suggested that the incident should first be investigated by the club: "They need to follow the guidelines and any conflict of interest must be catered for as well." 

Three days later, Hynes sent a directive to Keane, the Athenry chairman: "Your club should establish a three-person committee to resolve the matter locally and make recommendations. If unable to comply satisfactorily for whatever reason, within the Club, the matter could be referred to the County Children's Officer."

Two months passed, and another four letters of complaint had arrived on Hynes' desk. He sent a reminder to Keane, and a recommendation to Caroline McLoughlin, as the Athenry secretary, to meet with the complainants "to document and clarify their allegations and concerns".

On June 1, 2017, he informed Monaghan that if the club did not fulfil their commitment to meet the complainants within five days, they should proceed without delay. Monaghan concurred and sent a reply on June 6: "The Athenry secretary hasn't followed up so it's time to proceed. As this is a Child welfare rather than a Rule issue, I think it better to refer to the hearings committee with Michael Monaghan as chairman. I will advise him tomorrow."

On June 26, 2017, Michael Monaghan presented a file on the case to the Galway Child Welfare Hearings Committee at a meeting in Loughrea and concluded: "In the interest of fairness and transparency and following our deliberations and discussion we recommend that the case should be heard by the National Committee of Child Welfare under the direction of Gearoid O'Maoilmhichil."

The club's position is that they attempted to mediate with the complainants during this period. The complainants say this is not the case.

ó Maoilmhichíl pressed ahead and a hearing was set for October 18 last at the Maldron Hotel in Oranmore. The committee was chaired by Fearghal Gray, the Co Clare Children's Officer, who was assisted by Denis O'Boyle and Oliver Donagher and an observer, Michelle Harte. There were four complainants and three respondents.

On the day, the complainants were accompanied by their wives; the respondents by the Athenry officials — the chairman (Keane), the secretary (McLoughlin) and the treasurer (David Donohue) — who had agreed to represent them.

Gray explained his role and how the process would work. Respect and the primacy of confidentiality were emphasised before the floor was offered to the complainants as the respondents took notes. Three hours it lasted. They were to resume two weeks later, on Wednesday, November 1, for witness testimony.

Then something extraordinary happened.

Five days before the hearing resumed, the club sent a text to a selection of members: "You are invited to a confidential meeting of all parents to inform you of an important issue affecting your sons u12 hurling team. Please attend in Carnaun clubhouse tomorrow Sat 28 Oct at 11 a.m. Any queries to Caroline McLoughlin."

Forty to 50 people showed up. They were addressed by the chairman, the secretary, and the treasurer. The important issue, they explained, was a "situation" that had arisen and some complaints that had been made.

The secretary: "We have been to the first part of the hearing with Croke Park and we're getting ready for the second part. We just wanted to let parents know in case parents had any concerns or questions. Or if they need any more information, that's really what we're here to do."

The chairman: "Caroline has outlined it there. We attended a meeting with Croke Park officials last Wednesday week in the Maldron Hotel. The complainants laid out their side of it that night and we have a chance next Wednesday night to give the clubs side of it.

"In the climate that we're in, everything is taken very seriously. But as well as having a duty of care to the children that come under our care, we also have a duty of care to the people who coach them. And we're putting up a very strenuous defence that nothing (untoward) happened at all."

The secretary: "We're conscious that this is a confidential process. We don't want this to be discussed publicly. We do not want people's reputation — on either side — (to be damaged.) We understand that all of these people have children and are members of the club, so we're not trying to make it any more divisive than it is. We just hope we can come through this and not have friendships lost or people falling out.

"The allegations I suppose in of themselves we have to take very seriously. And Croke Park are taking them very seriously. We will refute every single one of them and defend the respondents as vigorously as we can."

The treasurer: "There is a lot of second-hand stuff going around so as a club we felt it was appropriate to inform the parents. We didn't want people to hear it down town and say ‘Jesus! What's going on in Athenry GAA club?' We want to be upfront with people. We want to show that we have nothing to hide as a club, and that the three people involved have nothing to hide."

The secretary: "They asked us if we wanted them to be here but, to be honest, they've gone through a fairly rough couple of weeks and their heads are fried. They just needed a break from it. They'll be glad to come here and talk to ye again another day if anybody wants to speak to them, or ask them any questions. But we felt . . . take a day off."

This compassion for the respondents was a response, curiously, that had not been extended to any of the complainants, who all say they were neither invited to the meeting, nor asked how they were feeling, and whatever the initial intention, it wasn't long before the gathering had become a rally for the troops as the audience nailed their colours to the mast:

"I've no problem with Paddy or John."

"I'll second that."

"The young lads are mad about Paddy."

"John Cloonan is an absolute saint in my eyes.

"If the players could put half the fire in their bellies that Paddy Kelly has there'd be a lot more silverware around here."

"John Cloonan does savage work. We couldn't replace him with three men."

"I've two lads and they worship Paddy."

"Bad language is part of the game."

"If these guys are punished you'll get nobody to do anything next year. The club will fall apart!"

Then the spotlight turned to the complainants.

"I think ye should tell us who's making the complaint?"

"Is it true they bypassed the club and went straight to Croke Park?"

"It sounds like an agenda."

"Are they here?"

(Laughs)

"What was their evidence like?"

"Were they well prepared?"

"It's hard to know," the secretary replied.

"That's open to interpretation," the treasurer said.

The audience laughed.

Two days later, McLoughlin sent another text: "Thank you to all the parents who attended our information session on Saturday and voiced their support for our volunteers. Many people have asked what they can do to help. It is totally a personal decision but if you would like to send an email in your own words supporting the three men please send it to secretary.athenry.galway@gaa.ie and please indicate if you would be willing to speak on their behalf at the hearing on 1 November. Thank you very much, Caroline."

The complainants were despondent when they learned what had happened, and became worried about the second night of the hearing.

"Our hope was that our son would be interviewed in a child-friendly manner but the club had ensured that wasn't going to happen," ‘Complainant A' says, adding they would not subject him to an ordeal with such a large crowd gathered at the hotel.  

"We made a mistake and brought our son," ‘Complainant B' says. "We walked into the hotel and there were people from the club everywhere — the restaurant, the foyer, the corridors, everywhere . . . I met one of my neighbours and asked, ‘What are you doing here?' She says: ‘I can't tell you that.'

"Fearghal Gray wasn't impressed. He'd been getting emails from them at all hours and was angry that the confidence of the first meeting had been broken."

It was another three months — February 15, 2018 — before the investigation was complete and Gray delivered its conclusions. And shortly after that when the club celebrated the news on their website:

 

St Mary's GAA Athenry welcomes the recent conclusions of the National Code of Best Practice Hearings Committee, with no negative findings for the club officers and coaches involved. Child Welfare is of paramount importance in our club. Therefore, the coaches and officers engaged with the hearing procedure fully and in good faith at all times. We are happy to report that the matter is now finally closed and would like thank everyone for their support during this damaging process. St Mary's Athenry continues to encourage children to play our sport harmoniously in our community and remains 100% committed to child welfare.

 

It was true that the complaint against Paddy Kelly had been resolved by mediation after he had written a letter of apology. And it was true that one complaint against John Cloonan had been deemed inconclusive as there was insufficient evidence to uphold the allegation.

There is also no suggestion that either John Cloonan, Paddy Kelly or anybody else involved has broken any laws. Both men are loyal stalwarts in the club and widely respected in the community. The complaints related to GAA guidelines for underage coaches and mentors.

But the statement posted on the website was at odds with what the report actually said as the hearings committee's overall appraisal of the club's approach was scathing.

Eight weeks ago, Gray sent the club a withering reminder of their conduct during the committee's hearings and their obligations to its findings. Here are some excerpts from Gray's reminder:

"It is a duty of care for all that the club consider the findings of the Hearings Committee. The committee also have concerns as to a major ignorance of child safeguarding policy and practice at club level by both club mentors and club personnel which was apparent at the hearings and also the manner in which some club members conducted themselves prior to and at the hearings.

"The hearings committee see it as a duty of care to children that no mentor is permitted to be alone with children at any stage as a clear breach of the Code of Best Practice occurred when John Cloonan, by his own admission, was alone in a dressing room with two children while fulfilling his role as a club coach.  

"This is a most serious matter and the club is required to ensure that no such opportunity presents itself again where this could reoccur.

"The club is also required as part of the findings to ensure that Mr Cloonan attends a Gaelic Games Child Protection in Sport workshop within the next six months and once he attends the workshop that you record his certificate number and pass this to the County Children's Officer for verification purposes."

The letter continued: "During the Hearings club personnel displayed a remarkable ignorance as to either the existence or the content of the Code of Best Practice in Youth Sport, they were unaware as to certain regulations regarding acceptable levels of behaviour for good coaches . . . Taken on face value this is a remarkable state of events that such stated lack of knowledge or ignorance of procedure could be present amongst so many, all of whom would be deemed to hold positions of responsibility in the Club.

"This is a challenge for the St Marys Club . . . No club should permit circumstances to be created whereby those in roles of responsibility should be permitted to be unaware of such key safeguarding provisions particularly those who work with children

"The conduct of some personnel purporting to represent the Club at the Hearings was at times most disappointing. Senior club members showed a distinct disdain from the outset for the Hearings proceedings and at times for those on the Hearings committee and the complainants. The conduct of Club members who approached and remonstrated in the hotel foyer with complainants or witnesses, some of whom were X years of age, was at very least unnecessary and in poor taste and at worst could be seen as intimidatory.

"It does a club of the stature of St Marys a serious disservice. Equally unacceptable was the manner in which some people purporting to represent respondents displayed a lack of respect to the Hearings by ignoring the proceedings as they slouched across their tables particularly while (testimony) was given by some of the complainants or witnesses. [This is understood to be a reference to the second night of the hearing, which was attended by a large crowd.]

"The campaign that was initiated to gather letters of support and to forward such letters after 1.00 am to myself (and I understand to the National Child and Safeguarding Manager) on 31 October 2017, from your email address was most intimidatory and inexcusable. It set a tone for the subsequent hearings that has apparently continued till this day.

"Now that the Hearings are completed and the relevant decisions made I trust the Club Executive will immediately set about playing its part in improving or where required in establishing the necessary child safeguarding provisions in the club.

"Finally, I note in the last number of days, with some amazement, the contents of a club statement on the Hearings due to the extreme inaccurate nature of its contents. I would request that it is removed immediately. Should you choose to deliberately misrepresent the findings of a National Hearings Committee, as the statement has done, I will have no option but to request that the matter be raised by your County representative at Central Council as an undermining of procedures authorised in rule 1.13 by Central Council itself."

But the statement was not taken down.

Ten days ago, we put a series of questions to the Athenry chairman, Sean Keane [See separate panel]. A meeting was arranged for Monday at 7.30pm in Loughrea but at midday, Keane sent a text apologising for the late notification and requesting we postpone until the Club had heard from Croke Park.

On Tuesday morning, the statement was still showing on the Athenry website. On Tuesday afternoon, it had been removed. A meeting of the National Management Committee (attended by Tom Ryan, the new CEO, and the new president, John Horan) had convened in Croke Park and sent St Mary's a number of directives.

A Child Safeguarding Risk Assessment was being conducted on the club and their juvenile hurling and football programme was to be postponed until an assessor had established they were fully compliant. They were also being removed as a host to the upcoming Féile competitions.   

On Friday, we were contacted by two members of the Athenry club executive who were keen to give the club's side of the story on condition of anonymity. Here are some extracts:

Athenry Executive: What is the purpose of this article?

Sunday Independent: The purpose of the article is that five kids who were members of your club, who loved hurling and loved playing for your club, have now either quit the game or are playing with other clubs. I'm trying to explain how that happened. And I'd like you to explain how that happened.

AE: The management of the Under 14 team would have made numerous attempts with the complainants involved to try and see if they could come up with solutions for their kids to play. And the parents themselves would have been contacted directly multiple times over the last 12 months in terms of trying to find a resolution, but never once did the individuals concerned engage with the club. They went to Galway County Board, they went to Croke Park but never once did they engage with us. We only became aware in early October last year that there was a hearing in the Galway County Board — never once were we made aware of that. And then, on a Thursday night, we got a bundle of documentation in PDF format with about 50/60 pages and were asked to attend a National Code of Best Practice Hearing within 48 hours.

SI: Yeah, I'm listening to what you're saying but I have a couple of issues. I've a small mountain of paperwork in front of me here that dates to November 2016, when 16 signatories — a group of concerned parents — contacted the club, wrote a letter to Sean Keane. How can you tell me with a straight face that the first you heard of this was last October?

AE: Can we give you a little bit of background? That letter was sent in, that's true, but the majority of the signatories on that letter have retracted themselves from it, and have distanced themselves.

SI: Okay, well can we just clarify that the first you heard of this was not in October, it was November 2016, so that's one discrepancy. Would you like me to point out some more?

AE: You are confusing the issues.

SI: I am not confusing the issues. You were contacted by the Galway County Board in March of last year. You were asked to form a committee and to meet the complainants and document their complaints. That did not happen. You did not meet the complainants. So again, don't tell me the first you heard of this was October, because I'm looking at the email that says you were informed in March.

AE: No, what we meant was that the first we heard of this in terms of a National Committee was October . . . Can I give you a little bit of background that we mentioned?

SI: Sure.

AE: I'm not sure if you've investigated the club but you may have seen our roll of honour. If you do a study of our club we've won the most under 21s in Galway, the most under 18s, the most under 16s, and a good few under 14s but we have never won the under 12 championships. And that is as a result of our policy. Our policy with under 12s is that it's all about participation. It's about developing the player, developing the person. It's not about win-at-all-costs.

A few of these parents that took umbrage, they wanted their kids to be on teams that were winning. They wanted to be putting pressure on all of the other kids and that's totally against our club ethos. Our ethos at that level, from 6s when they start to 14 years of age is all about participation.

At under 16 it gets a little bit more serious and there's a bit of an emphasis put on competing and winning, and at minor it gets serious. But at under 12 it's all about the child and the individual and developing them as a person; it's not about winning. Some of these parents, one in particular, said he was embarrassed Athenry were so bad at that grade. But look, our players will develop into better people and that's what we're about in this community. And I hope you get that across.

SI: I'm listening to you. 

AE: There are a lot of good people in this club. One of those people (targeted) by the complainants, for instance, is one of the major patrons of the Children's Hospital in Dublin. His son has been through a cancer fight. He raises money every year for the children's hospital. These are the people that you are potentially attacking.

The juvenile chairman of our club is burying his brother tomorrow — a lifelong supporter of our club. This is what we're talking about here. We would plead with you that names would be left out, particularly this weekend. And that you would take that unsigned letter from those worried parents into context — that it's not about winning for us.

SI: No, I agree, it's not about winning, so let's get down to the nitty-gritty of what it is about, because the complaints weren't about winning. There was no mention of winning in any of the complaints.

AE: Paul, we're in the community. That's what drove this. It's a small community. People talk. That's what drove it. 

SI: Well, I'm of the understanding that the complaints, or at least one of them, was about abusive language by Paddy Kelly.

AE: Well, listen, we know Paddy since we were both 12 years of age. Paddy Kelly is a pillar of our community. He may use an odd bad word every now and again — is that a sin? Do people go to jail for that? So don't give me ‘Paddy Kelly said this' and ‘Paddy Kelly said that', he is a leader in our community. I could give you a list as long as the road to Dublin with people vouching for Paddy Kelly.

SI: I understand that but (the use of bad language towards kids) is against the rules of the Association.

AE: We went through a National Hearing process in respect of that allegation, and there was no finding. What was recommended by the Committee in respect of that allegation of bad language was mediation. And both parties entered into mediation, and mediation was agreed.

SI: And Paddy Kelly wrote a letter of apology as part of that mediation.

AE: Well again, what is the issue here Paul? 

SI: The issue is that if you (read) the Code of Best Practice you will see in very clear writing that foul language should play no part in how a coach deals with kids. They are not allowed to swear in front of kids. That's the issue. Are you telling me that didn't happen?

AE: We're fully aware of that, Paul. But are you going to write an article on every coach up and down the country? Because don't tell me that every coach up and down the country uses exemplary language every day they deal with kids. Don't tell me that.

SI: I'm not telling you that.

AE: We're all living in the real world here.

SI: I'm telling you it's against the rules.

AE: Get real.

SI: It's against the rules of the Association.

AE: And that issue was dealt with by a hearing committee. It went to mediation and in our view it's closed.

SI: I called John Cloonan and he declined to speak to me but (he suggested) that somebody from the club would be in touch to talk on his behalf. So that's the conversation we're having now.

AE: Yeah.

SI: He was found in breach (of the Code of Best Practice) when, by his own admission, he closed the dressing room door on two young kids. Can we address that please?

AE: Just to get that statement right, by his own admission, correct, he spoke to two kids but in terms of the dressing room door it wasn't closed. And the context of what (he's supposed to have said) was completely incorrect and inaccurate. The two kids at the time were under 11. This was an under 14 game. They got a jersey but weren't on the team sheet for the day because they were 11 and playing under 14, and our ethos within the club, as we said, is to develop players skills.

That was the context of the conversation. That was what he said. There was an acknowledgement of that, and a finding in the hearings — the only finding out of 20 allegations — and it was based on John's admission, because that's the kind of person he is. But the context of what he spoke about has been incorrectly documented in all of the correspondence we received from Croke Park in late October.

SI: I'll just quote you what Fearghal Gray said: ‘This is a most serious matter and the club is required that no such opportunity presents itself again.'

AE: Yeah, and we've taken appropriate action in that John has gone, or is scheduled to do a refresher course on the safeguarding of children, etcetera, so we have adhered to the finding and the requests of the committee. Or John has.

SI: So we agree that this was a breach of the Code of Best Practice?

AE: Yes.

SI: I'm just curious about the fact that Fearghal Gray had to send you a scathing email reminding you of the findings of the hearing and the message on (the Club) website which seemed to deny, completely, what those findings were?

AE: I presume you've seen that letter he sent?

SI: I've seen the letter.

AE: It's laughable. We all work in the real world here. Who sends out a letter from an organisation that's not on headed paper? That's not signed, or dated, or addressed to anyone. That's not how you conduct business. We love the games but the way the GAA is run is just ridiculous. And this is a classic example of how badly it is run. There's no signatures (on the letter). The names are just typed up.

SI: So you're saying Fearghal Gray didn't write it?

AE: Well, it's not signed. And unless a letter is signed, I wouldn't take any action. We've sent a strong letter back to clarify where this letter came from, and refuting everything in it. We have not had a response.

SI: The statement on the website was removed on Tuesday afternoon?

AE: That's correct.

SI: And you've had a directive from Croke Park?

AE: Well, unfortunately, the directive out of this whole thing is that there are 350 young kids in Athenry who are willing to play hurling and football that have been hit with a possible suspension.

SI: But you've agreed to comply with the findings of the hearing?

AE: Well, the findings are all hearsay.

SI: Have you agreed to comply or not?

AE: Yeah, we're going to comply with them.

Yesterday morning, the Sunday Independent received an email from Sean Keane. Yesterday afternoon two members of the executive spoke to the sports editor, John Greene. They said the club disputes the claim that it did not address the complaints from the start. They said they intended to appeal the sanctions imposed. They also said they intended to comply with the directives from the GAA.

On Friday, we phoned Croke Park and put the club's concerns about the authenticity of Fearghal Gray's letter to Gearóid ó Maoilmhicíl. He sighed and put us on hold and pulled the letter from a file. "There's a big word called denial here," he said. "And we're not talking about the river."

 

 

The following is the transcript of a telephone conversation which took place between Paul Kimmage and club chairman, Sean Keane, on Friday, April 27:

Paul Kimmage: "I'm looking at a statement on the club website about the National Code of Best Practice Hearing and the suggestion that there were ‘no negative findings for the club officers and coaches involved'?"

Sean Keane: "Yeah, that's right."

PK: "You were told to take it down?"

SK: "Well . . . not really. We would dispute that. We would be interested in talking to you, if you want to talk to us."

PK: "Well, I am interested in talking to you. I'm talking to you now. I have the response from Fearghal Gray in front of me. He said: ‘I note in the last number of days, with some amazement, the content of a club statement on the Hearings. I would request that it is removed immediately'."

SK: "Well, we have written to Croke Park and we dispute the assertions of Fearghal Gray. And we are waiting for a response back from Croke Park."

PK: "The club is affiliated to the GAA?"

SK: "We are, yes."

PK: "And you attended these hearings?"

SK: "Yes."

PK: "And you were present when all of the evidence was given?"

SK: "Ahh, we were but . . ."

PK: "But you won't implement the findings?"

SK: "We have implemented the findings of the Hearing, we just dispute the assertion of Fearghal Gray that the statement (on the website) is inaccurate."

PK: "But it is inaccurate."

SK: "No, you're saying it's inaccurate."

PK: "You were told to take it down."

SK: "We dispute that the statement is wrong."

I ask him about the background to the hearing and how the club had conducted itself.

PK: "You were informed of this last March through an email from the county secretary John Hynes: ‘Your club should establish a three-person committee to resolve the matter'. You didn't do very much about it?"

SK: "Who said that?"

PK: "You didn't form the committee?"

SK: "Are you sure about that?"

PK: "I've spoken to the complainants."

SK: "Are they saying there was no committee formed?"

PK: "They're saying you did not meet them."

SK: "And why didn't we meet them I wonder?"

PK: "I don't know."

SK: "Because they wouldn't show up to it."

PK: "They wouldn't show up?"

SK: "They never responded to our emails. Our committee was waiting to see them and they never responded to our emails."

PK: "So you invited all of them to meet you?"

SK: "All of them. We have the emails."

PK: "And they wouldn't attend?"

SK: "They wouldn't attend."

PK: "Can you tell me about the meeting that was held five days before the second hearing on October 28?"

SK: "Where was that meeting held?"

PK: "In your clubhouse. There was yourself, Caroline McLoughlin and Dave Donohue. You addressed a meeting of parents but did not invite any of the complainants."

SK: "Are you sure of that now?"

PK: "I am sure."

SK: "Who told you they weren't invited?"

PK: "I spoke to them."

SK: "That's a problem. If you speak to us we could fill you in very clearly on what happened."

PK: "I know what happened."

SK: "No, you think you know what happened."

PK: "Okay, so explain it to me then."

SK: "They were invited. Every parent of a child that was playing for us on that team was invited — they just refused to show up."

PK: "They would dispute that."

SK: "Well, that's the problem. If you want to hear the facts, come and talk to us."

PK: "I think I've a fair grasp of the facts."

SK: "You have a fair grasp of one side of it."

PK: "I've listened to and read a lot of your side, and I'm asking you some questions about this meeting."

SK: "And I'm giving you the answers."

PK: "You're saying the complainants were invited to this meeting?"

SK: "Every parent was invited if they had a child on the team. There was no parent excluded. We have proof that they got the email."

PK: "It was a text message."

SK: "Are you sure of that?"

PK: "Would you like me to read the text message? It was basically an invitation to parents on the team to address some important issues."

SK: "And are they saying they didn't get the message?"

PK: "They did not get the message."

SK: "And were (their kids) on the under 12 panel at the time?"

PK: "I don't know about that."

SK: "Well, you should find out."

PK: "You're splitting hairs now, Sean."

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