Charleton tribunal: Tusla admits list of errors over catastrophic file

Child and family agency failed to stop the McCabe file travelling on through the system

The extraordinary inability of the child and family agency Tusla in Co Cavan to claw back a catastrophic error made in a child abuse report concerning Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe continued to be the dominant feature at the Charleton tribunal this week.

In its first module of evidence the tribunal, which is examining an alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe by senior Garda management, is probing how an allegation of digital rape of a young girl (Ms D) came to be recorded in 2013 against McCabe, even though no such allegation was ever made by anyone.

The error had arisen in 2013 when counsellor Laura Brophy mistakenly pasted a digital rape allegation from another client into a report to Tusla about a much milder allegation against Sgt McCabe by her then client, Ms D. In May 2014, she notified Tusla of her mistake.

Despite this, a year later again Tusla wrote to Sgt McCabe about the digital rape allegation, and suggested he be assessed as to the threat he posed to children.

Tusla’s failure to stop the error travelling on through the system happened against a background where first a Garda commissioner, and then a minister for justice, were forced to resign because of controversies to do with Sgt McCabe.

The picture being painted of Tusla in Cavan-Monaghan is one of a service under enormous pressure, with social workers having to deal with multiple high-risk situations, including where children were at risk in their own homes. Nevertheless, the tribunal continues to ask whether this is the only explanation.

Rape allegations

On Wednesday, social worker Kay McLoughlin gave evidence of how she came to write a letter to Sgt McCabe in 2015 requesting a meeting to discuss the allegation of child rape.

Sgt McCabe had been the subject of an allegation in 2006 of inappropriate behaviour with Ms D, behaviour that the tribunal has characterised as horseplay. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided that even if true, which McCabe denied, what Ms D was complaining of was not an offence.

This was known to social workers at the time as the complaint was reported to them by the then 11-year-old girl’s mother. The incident was alleged to have occurred in 1998. Ms D is the daughter of a Garda colleague of Sgt McCabe’s.

Ms McLoughlin told of reviewing the McCabe file in late 2015, by way of her normal duties. The file, which had been opened in 2013 but never assigned to a particular social worker, contained documents from 2013 containing the rape allegation, but also a 2014 email explaining that a mistake had been made.

Despite the Tusla file including the email, Ms McLoughlin composed a letter to Sgt McCabe seeking a meeting to discuss the allegation of child rape.

“I did not review the file fully,” Ms McLoughin told Diarmuid McGuinness SC, for the tribunal. “I failed to appreciate that there was a significant error on the file and I failed to review the file thoroughly.”

High turnover

Ms McLoughlin knew about the whistleblower controversy, but said “absolutely not” when asked if she or anyone else in the department was out to get Sgt McCabe. She told Conor Dignam SC, for the Garda Commissioner, that high staff turnover could be part of the explanation for what happened. Four people held the post of social work team leader between July 2013 and July 2014 when she took over the post.

Ms McLoughlin’s letter went out. Sgt McCabe’s solicitor, Seán Costello, wrote back expressing his client’s astonishment, and demanding information, but it was months before the agency replied, and even when it did it was still of the view that Sgt McCabe should be examined to see if he posed a risk to children.

Gerard Lowry, the Tusla area manager, who knew about the 2013 mistake, was sent a draft of the McLoughlin letter before it was sent out, but failed to look at it. He said the pressure the service operates under is part of the explanation for what happened.

He also said it was his view that there was “still something to be discussed” with Sgt McCabe right up to last year, given that the 2006 complaint had been made to the girl’s parents and two social workers. When the McCabe file was transferred to the sexual abuse retrospective team in 2016, it sought a meeting with Ms D, was unsuccessful, and closed the file.

There were two short pieces of evidence that were striking in the context of the hydra-headed aspect of the Sgt McCabe file within the Tusla office in Cavan.


On Thursday, clerical administrator Pamela Armitage said that she could remember getting a call in May 2014 from Ms Brophy telling her about the mistake.

Asked if there was a protocol for how to deal with such mistakes, Armitage said there was not. “I hadn’t dealt with anything like it before.” She had been with the service for 14 years.

Also on Thursday, the director of counselling with the HSE in the South East, Dr Gerard O’Neill, gave evidence about what happened in May 2014 when a file on Ms D was transferred to them from Cavan (Ms D had moved).

Soon after receiving the file, the service was contacted by Ms Brophy and told that it contained an error (the rape allegation). Dr O’Neill said they waited until they got a replacement file, then shredded the one containing the error. No copy was kept.

He made it sound like a simple enough thing to do.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent