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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - 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 full­time 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.”

Child safety is paramount. We all have to learn from this

Michael Feeney leav­ing court in Bally­bay

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