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St John Ambulance abuse: ‘They knew something was going on’

Former volunteers recall warnings and common knowledge of alleged child abuse risks

Waiting to head out on first aid duty from the Leeson Street headquarters of St John Ambulance in Dublin city more than 40 years ago, John Barrington recalls being warned to stay away from a senior officer in the voluntary organisation.

The man, a senior figure in the organisation’s Old Kilmainham division, is now accused of molesting more than 15 boys between the late 1960s and 1990s.

A recent report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC concluded there was “significant” awareness in St John Ambulance of the risk the individual posed to children, but it failed to take action to intervene.

Barrington (60), a former member of the Ballyfermot division in Dublin, said he was warned as far back as the late 1970s to never be alone with the former senior figure.


As a 15-year-old cadet he was with an adult volunteer in the organisation’s headquarters to pick up an ambulance in advance of a first aid duty when he crossed paths with the alleged perpetrator.

“Stay away from him. Don’t ever be alone, don’t get into the back of an ambulance with him,” he recalled the other adult volunteer warning him. Barrington, who left the organisation in the early 1980s, said people gave the senior figure “a wide berth”.

In the aftermath of the report by Dr Shannon, he said it was clear the organisation had handled the matter “horrendously”. He believes the voluntary body will “struggle” to recruit new youth cadet members in the future.

One former cadet in the Old Kilmainham division in the late 1960s said alleged abuse of youth members by the former senior figure was commonplace.

“He was always trying to put his hands down your pants,” the man, who did not wish to be named, told The Irish Times.

The former member said the man took groups of cadets on weekend trips to a caravan in Co Wicklow. “He slept with the young lads at the back of the caravan, I slept by the door,” he said. The man, who was able to avoid the alleged abuser’s advances, said he returned from the trip “sick and scared”.

The former volunteer said he was questioned in detail by officers after asking to transfer from Old Kilmainham to another Dublin division. “They knew something was going on, they just didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said.

At least 11 people have contacted a helpline for abuse survivors in St John Ambulance set up by Tusla, the child and family agency, following the Shannon report. It is understood a significant number of those are coming forward to disclose past abuse for the first time.

George Jefferies (59), who had been a volunteer in Cork before moving up to Dublin in 1997, said he was “horrified” at the findings of the report.

Jefferies, who left the organisation in 2015, said shortly after he moved to Dublin it became “obvious” that there was an awareness among volunteers of risks to children posed by the senior figure in Old Kilmainham.

“The rumours were there, most people who were in the organisation in the 1990s were aware of the rumours... You had people saying ‘keep an eye on him with young cadets’,” he said.

Jefferies said now there was suddenly “a lot of denial” among older volunteers, about the scale of past awareness of concerns and suspicions. He said the board of the organisation should resign over the controversy. “I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson,” he said.

The former senior figure left the organisation around 2000, only after one survivor, Mick Finnegan, reported being sexually abused by the man.

One source who volunteered at a senior level in St John Ambulance during the 2010s said there had been “nod and wink” knowledge about the former officer, which was alluded to but not discussed openly. Looking back now the source said the organisation was attempting to “knowingly or unknowingly” protect itself by not confronting the subject.

In the wake of Dr Shannon’s report there have been repeated calls from politicians and survivors that the organisation’s entire board step down.

David Strahan, chairman of the board, and two other long serving members, Richard Ensor and Charles O’Reilly, have said they are stepping down, to make way for fresher faces, but there is no indication of any mass resignation on the horizon.

John Hughes has been the commissioner, which is the voluntary head of the organisation, since 2014. A high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Enterprise, he was previously a senior officer in the Crumlin division.

Five-year term limits were introduced for the position in early 2020 but not backdated, meaning Hughes’s position will come up for board renewal at the end of 2024, 10 years after he started in the role.

Dr Shannon’s report also heavily criticised failings in St John Ambulance’s current child protection practices and policies.

In light of the findings, Dublin Zoo, which uses St John Ambulance volunteers for first aid services, has said it is seeking assurances from the organisation over child safeguarding and vetting practices. The Aviva Stadium, which uses its volunteers at Ireland rugby and football matches, previously said it had been assured the organisation had “all the necessary safeguards” in place.

Despite the subsequent criticism of current standards in Dr Shannon’s report, a spokesman said it had nothing further to add to its previous comment.

It is understood detectives from the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, responsible for sexual crimes, are reviewing the Shannon report.

A Garda spokeswoman confirmed gardaí were continuing “to carry out investigations into a number of historic sexual offences” related to St John Ambulance. At least two complaints of alleged child sex abuse by the former senior figure are under ongoing investigation.

On four previous occasions gardaí have submitted files to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), but the prosecutor has opted against charging the alleged perpetrator.

The Oireachtas committee on children is expected to invite Tusla to a hearing in late April, to take questions on previous assurances it gave about St John Ambulance.

In a December 2019 letter, Bernard Gloster, then-Tusla chief executive, said the agency believed there was no evidence of “systemic or organisational abuse” in the past, and it had “no current concerns” about the organisation. That assurance was based on a review of St John Ambulance’s child safeguarding statement, which sets out how it plans to manage any risks to children in the organisation.

Last year Tusla reviewed more than 380 organisations’ safeguarding statements, finding nearly 240 were not compliant with requirements. Following back and forth with officials, all were later brought into compliance.

Tusla has said it does not have the power to review if child protection policies are followed, outside of assessing safeguarding statements on paper.

One former senior Department of Children official said it had been a “deliberate policy choice” not to give Tusla powers to audit organisations. The intention of Children First legislation in 2015 was that the “responsibility” for child protection policies being followed properly lay with organisations and companies, they said.

Giving Tusla new powers to conduct audits would pull resources away from other areas, such as addressing waiting lists for at-risk children to be seen by social workers, the former civil servant said.

Dr Joe Mooney, University College Dublin assistant professor of social work, said it was clear there was a “gap” and some authority did need to have powers to investigate child protection standards.

If this did not sit with Tusla, an independent office within the department could be given responsibility to carry out audits, Dr Mooney said. It was “essential” there was some way for the State to examine how safe youth organisations were in practice, he said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times