Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sinead Kissane: Why is 'he's a good GAA man' sometimes used as an excuse or back-up for someone's behaviour?

Tom Humphries was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Tom Humphries was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

During last weekend's Bledisloe Cup game between Australia and New Zealand, the referee Wayne Barnes had cautionary words for the two captains in the 56th minute as he gave a warning generally not heard during a game like this.

"We can't have players just getting up and pushing, shouting, screaming at each other. You are role models of the game," Barnes stated. "So go and talk to your role models and ask them to behave a bit better than this."

It has long become the norm for role-model status to be automatically attached to most people who play sport because their dedication and hard work is an example to others of what can be achieved.

However, sometimes those values are stretched to include a moral dimension. But just because someone is good at playing sport doesn't mean they should become our moral compass - talent and status in sport doesn't always extend to sound moral judgement. It would be nice if it did, but that, obviously, isn't always the case.

In Ireland, it is easy to place those involved with sport on a pedestal with varying degrees of elevation.

It is also more than a simple join-the-dots exercise to wonder if the decrease in the influence of the Catholic Church here has seen that vacuum filled by the rise in status of sport. If the church, the GAA and Fianna Fáil were seen as the pillars of old Ireland, it is the GAA which has continually been a strong backbone of Irish life.

The GAA is immeasurably tied up with who we are and our community. In more serious matters in the court of law, a person described as being associated with the GAA has been used as a defence of their character.

Tyrone footballer Cathal McCarron described in his autobiography 'Out of Control' how a reference from Tyrone manager Mickey Harte helped him when he appeared in court for fraudulently using credit cards in his mother's name to access more money for his "destructive" gambling addiction.

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"When I ended up in court, Mickey Harte came to my assistance. He gave me a character reference which helped my case," McCarron wrote. "I received a suspended sentence. I was in the clear. For now."

It is understandable why anyone would want to help someone struggling with problems like addiction. But, in other situations, is it right that referencing the GAA should be automatically seen as code for a person's virtuous character?

Read more here:

Why is "he's a good GAA man" sometimes used as an excuse or back-up for someone's behaviour when that's not always the case? Because the most powerful part of any society is not just what we think but what we don't think - the unexamined assumptions we rely on but which are not challenged enough at all levels.

The leniency of the sentence handed down to Tom Humphries this week caused a lot of anger and disgust.

Humphries was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for grooming and defilement. In sentencing Humphries, Judge Karen O'Connor said he had fallen from a high-profile position.

"It would be difficult not to have some sympathy for him. I say that not to excuse in any way the behaviour but in relation to his current station," Judge O'Connor said. "It is something of a truism to say that the higher the profile and success of a member of our society, the greater the fall."

The most important voice, which has been lost at times this week, is that of the victim. During the sentence hearing earlier this month, the victim impact statement was read out.

"Dealing with sexual encounters with a man three times my age made me physically, mentally and emotionally ill," the victim wrote. "It is a constant battle I have to fight in order to get on with my day-to-day life. I have been suicidal because of all that has happened."

She has "permanent flashbacks and severe panic attacks" and also suffers from depression. Her statement also included a part where she thanked Humphries' family for bringing the abuse to the attention of the Gardaí. "Without them reporting this I do not know where I would be today. I hope you can all get past this and go on to live a normal and healthy life."

The length of Humphries' sentence has been met with a huge backlash as well as being criticised as too lenient by rape crisis groups.

While some might see this as the court of public opinion in action with its latest case of moral outrage, please, let's not confuse that with the fact that people have a right to feel and express their outrage about this horrendous case.

Despite what Judge O'Connor said, it is not difficult to have zero sympathy for Humphries. There is no grey area in this matter.

As well as the issues surrounding length of sentencing and the role of character references in cases like this, what also needs to be examined is why Humphries' high profile was mentioned.

Why was he placed on that pedestal from which he fell? Because of his work as a sports journalist with a national broadsheet newspaper? Because of the way he wrote? Because of what he wrote about? Because of his links with the GAA?

When I sat down to do this piece I was concerned about writing anything which would take away from the most important voice which is the victim's. There was also a concern of being out of my depth in talking about such a horrendous case.

Who am I as a sports journalist to talk about such grave matters?

Who am I to ask questions about sentencing and character references?

But who am I not to?

The past week forces us to ask questions of ourselves in sports journalism. There should be no fear or inhibition about talking in sports pages about the heinous crimes Humphries committed because he was involved in the same industry.

The eulogy-type piece which was published by his former employer, 'The Irish Times', on the day Humphries was sentenced, inadvertently or not, came off as an attempt to glorify his work. If we as sports journalists do not hold to account a paedophile in the same manner as other paedophiles then how are the public meant to trust us?

We also need to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to inform about child protection in sport. Sport can be trivialised at times as not being as important as other aspects of our lives without realising that life, in all its beauty, its ugly and evil guises, exists within sport.

Sport is not just about the elite. We need to educate and inform which is why I would encourage anyone reading this - including those of us who are not directly involved with the coaching of children - to read a code of ethics for children like the GAA's or Sport Ireland's Code of Ethics and Good Practice for Children's Sport which can be viewed here:

When people like my dad started coaching nearly three decades ago, there were no guidelines for child protection only the general guidelines he had in his job as a secondary school teacher.

This landscape has changed utterly. As reported in Thursday's Irish Independent, the GAA have police-vetted and trained more than 130,000 people in child protection practices over the past seven years.

Outside of the GAA, I was in contact with a child protection officer with a sports club who went through the various responsibilities that comes with their role which includes "ensuring that all adults who work with the children are fully Garda-vetted", "that all who coach children have completed a child protection course" and making sure the child protection policy is up to date to "fully ensure transparency for all".

Our basic instinct attached to sport is trust. The trust between a player and their team-mate. Trust between a player and their coach and a coach and their player. Trust between a parent and their child's coach. Trust between players and the public. Trust between the public and sports journalists.

Trust that a child is safe in sport. Trust that a child is protected in sport. And this, above anything else, is the most important trust of all.

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