Abuse by former teacher and coach John McClean a ‘dark hour’ for Terenure

Survivors and local community react amid sentencing for abuse at Terenure College

Former rugby coach John McClean  leaves  court. Photograph: Collins Courts

Former rugby coach John McClean leaves court. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

In changing rooms, his private office, and empty classrooms, former Terenure College teacher and rugby coach John McClean for decades abused his position of trust to molest nearly two dozen pupils in the south Dublin school.

On Thursday, McClean (76), of Casimir Avenue, Harold’s Cross, Dublin, was sentenced to eight years in prison, after pleading guilty to charges of indecently assaulting 23 pupils between 1973 and 1990.

One of the survivors, Damien Hetherington (59), said McClean’s abuse had been covered up, and the “dogs in the street were barking about it for 30 years” in Terenure.

Speaking outside the court where McClean was sentenced on Thursday, Mr Hetherington said he had been “terrified” to attend school after the abuse, and his education suffered.

Abuse survivor Damien Hetherington speaks to the media outside the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court after John McClean was sentenced to eight years in jail. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times
Abuse survivor Damien Hetherington speaks to the media outside the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court after John McClean was sentenced to eight years in jail. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times

“I didn’t get to do my Inter Cert or anything . . . My father would have worked his backside off to pay those [school] fees. It definitely had a huge bearing on my education, or lack of it,” he said.

One victim who had reported the abuse in the late 1970s said the response of the school was one of “silence and indifference” at the time. Another described McClean as “evil personified”, in victim impact statements read in court.

Many victims for decades afterwards carried feelings of shame, powerlessness, and a loss of trust, the court heard.

Terenure College counts former Ireland rugby internationals, Supreme Court judges, past members of the Oireachtas, well-known actors, novelists, scientists, and business leaders among its past pupils.

The Irish Times contacted a number of the school’s prominent alumni, but none wished to comment on the abuse revelations.

Further actions

David Harrington grew up just a few hundred yards from the gates of Terenure College, and attended the school in the 1990s.

Mr Harrington is now a partner at Harringtons LLP Solicitors, who specialise in taking child abuse cases, and represented one of McClean’s victims in a civil case against Terenure College and the Carmelite order, who run the school.

“The case has been resolved to the benefit of my client,” he said.

Further legal actions are “coming down the pipeline” now that the criminal case is over: “The school and the Carmelites should seek to proceed to mediation and settlement at an early stage” where possible, to avoid placing “extra trauma” on the survivors, he said.

McClean had done “irrevocable harm to his victims, but to Terenure College and the wider community as well”, Mr Harrington said.

“The vast majority of boys that passed through the school did not have any issues, but those who did suffer, suffered horrendously,” he said.

“This is a dark hour for Terenure, there’s no running away from it . . . This happened on our front doorstep relatively recently,” he said.

Seven civil cases have so far been filed over abuse by McClean; the majority list the school and religious order as defendants, court records show.

Like a number of religious orders, the Carmelites have sold prime land for development in recent years, including lands attached to Gort Muire, its student and novitiate house, in Ballinteer, south Dublin, to a developer in 2019 for a reported €35 million.

Dave Coleman, of Coleman Legal Partners, said the school and the Carmelites could be looking at a €2 million bill from the civil cases already lodged. His firm represents one man, and has been contacted by others.

Mr Coleman said a system of “structured mediation” could avoid protracted legal battles.

Further alleged victims

An Garda Síochána is investigating complaints by further alleged victims, with a Garda spokeswoman confirming the investigation into McClean is “ongoing”.

The criminal trial had previously heard that Fr Robert Kelly, then provincial of the Carmelite order, met with McClean in the summer of 1996, after one boy’s father reported abuse by McClean. During the meeting McClean admitted to the allegation, after which it was made clear he would not be returning to the school.

After leaving the school he took up a coaching role as director of rugby in University College Dublin (UCD).

It is understood the 1996 abuse allegation had been reported to the school at the start of that summer. He met Fr Kelly to discuss the alleged abuse about August.

At the time he was being pushed out of Terenure College, McClean was also a prominent coach of schoolboy rugby at both Leinster and Ireland level.

He was head coach of the Leinster schools team, a development squad of schoolboy players, for several years until 1996. This included taking a squad on a tour of New Zealand in 1995. One source said McClean stepped away from the Leinster position in the middle of the ’96/97 season, under the pretence of being unwell, before taking the UCD job.

He was also assistant coach to the Ireland schools team that toured Australia in the summer of 1996.

In rugby circles he was seen as a talent spotter, first identifying the quality of 17-year-old Brian O’Driscoll when he moved him into the centre position in the Leinster schools team.

In October 2017 Mr O’Driscoll credited McClean as the “most influential coach” in his career. “I’ve had some great coaches and some big coaches that taught me the basics . . . but I definitely would say a guy called John McClean,” he said.

His comments were made before the allegations against McClean surfaced publicly in early 2018. When questioned about Mr O’Driscoll’s past praise of the former coach, an agent for Mr O’Driscoll said: “Brian has no comment at this time.”

UCD Rugby Club

McClean played a prominent role for many years at UCD Rugby Club, traditionally a conveyor belt of future Leinster and Ireland players.

Upon his retirement in 2011, the club honoured him with a presentation at its annual dinner, praising him as a “foundation stone of the modern club”.

In a statement, the club said that “the crimes committed by John McClean are abhorrent and the devastation that his actions caused to so many people is unforgivable”.

A UCD spokeswoman said the university was “deeply concerned for the victims whose lives have been affected” by the abuse.

“The university was unaware of his crimes until they were reported in the media in 2018. To date, no incident relating to John McClean has been brought forward to the university,” she said.

Leinster Rugby said it was “appalled by the details that have emerged” about McClean. The club is not aware of any allegations from his time coaching the Leinster schools team, nor is the IRFU in relation to his time coaching the Ireland schools team.

Fergus D’Arcy, emeritus history professor at UCD, wrote a book on the history of Terenure College in 2010. McClean had been seen as a “god” in the school due to his talent as a coach, Prof D’Arcy said. “I interviewed him twice. It was all about success,” he said.

In a statement, Terenure College and the Carmelite order apologised unreservedly to the past pupils who had been abused.

“We understand that words of apology are never adequate when people have experienced so much pain and suffering over many years. These men were entrusted to our care when starting out in life – young boys full of hope, promise and joy,” it said.

“They had that hope and promise cruelly taken from them as a result of the sexual abuse perpetrated upon them by John McClean. Terenure College and the Carmelite order failed in their duty to protect them and for this we are truly sorry,” it said.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact: One in Four (oneinfour.ie), the Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888), the Samaritans (116123 or jo@samaritans.org) and HSE counselling services (1800-235234)