A culture resistant to change in St John Ambulance poses an “ongoing threat” to the first aid organisation being able to keep children safe in the present day, a major independent report has found.
The investigation by Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC, child law expert, found the voluntary organisation failed to take action against a former senior figure who allegedly molested more than 15 boys between the late 1960s and 1990s.
The report, published on Thursday, also heavily criticised the organisation’s current child protection standards, expressing concern over a number of recent cases and incidents.
In one case, the report said an adult member had “allegedly performed oral sex on a minor cadet”, and sent “inappropriate text messages” to another youth member. The alleged perpetrator was suspended and later left the organisation.
The report said there were incidents of “inappropriate behaviour and lack of supervision” on camping trips for youth members, known as cadets.
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Dr Shannon said an “ongoing lack of transparency and accountability” over cadet divisions, posed a risk of “unsafe child protection practices”.
Within significant parts of the organisation’s hierarchy there was a “pervasive denial about past failures”, as well as complacency about current vulnerabilities, he wrote.
The report said there were shortcomings in the organisation’s current Garda vetting system, which in recent instances had “failed”. This meant “avoidable child protection risks exist” in the potential for “unvetted individuals to gain access to children”.
A continued deference to rank and status within the organisation was posing an “ongoing threat to the implementation of robust and effective child protection systems and practices”, it said.
Dr Shannon said he believed St John Ambulance “operated an unsafe child safety culture” up to 2011, after which point reforms were made. However, he said further improvements were needed.
When members of the organisation’s leadership were interviewed some expressed “hostility” to suggestions current safeguarding practices had weaknesses, the report said.
Dr Shannon wrote that senior figures had a “significant over confidence” in the ability of safeguarding training for volunteers alone to keep children safe.
There were a number of recent cases involving the use of social media, which he said represented “clear and present dangers to child protection that cannot be ignored”.
In one case an adult volunteer “was engaged in inappropriate social media conversations with a minor cadet”, often messaging them in the early hours of the morning. The report said concerningly the volunteer, who was suspended, had held a child protection role in St John Ambulance.
A decision was taken to reinstate the volunteer but bar him from contact with cadets, but the man later left the organisation.
In another case an adult volunteer “had asked a cadet to sleep with him, when staying in the house of another cadet member”, the report said.
Another member was found to have sent inappropriate messages and pictures to some young teenage cadets over a number of years.
The report said it appeared “referrals to Tusla were not made in every case” where a child protection issue arose.
It said a cadet division had been suspended in 2019 due to risks related to the “full implementation” of child protection policies.
The organisation had a “core quasi-military structure” and cultural deference to those in higher ranks, which the report said would not be appropriate in an organisation with a healthy safeguarding culture.
Dr Shannon wrote he had “concerns about the capacity of volunteers” to meet the best child protection standards, without professional guidance.
Current policy had some “clear areas” which “fall short of legislative developments and child protection guidance”, the report said.
In a 2016 case, it emerged a volunteer subject to a child protection issue had never attended required safeguarding training, as they believed the four hour course was “too long”.
A further volunteer was suspended for messaging a cadet asking to meet up, as well as encouraging the child to “keep a secret” from his parents and the organisation.
The report said the system the voluntary body used to manage its cadet membership was “problematic”.
The report was “greatly concerned” with poor record keeping, where there was “clear inconsistency in note taking” between different cases.
“It was difficult, if not impossible, to understand what had happened in many cases, as many files contained incomplete information,” it said.
The fact that only four folders of documentation related to child protection matters were provided to the investigation seemed “inadequate”, the report said.
Until last year senior officers had kept records in their homes or workplaces, with files in some instances lost, which the report said raised “obvious and very significant data protection concerns”.