Dónal Óg Cusack quits Sport Ireland role after backlash over Humphries reference

Former Cork hurler says ‘he did not wish any controversy’ to detract from body’s work

Former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack. File photograph: Inpho

Former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack. File photograph: Inpho

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Former Cork hurler Dónal Óg Cusack tonight night stood down from the board of the State’s governing sports body as he “did not wish any controversy” to detract from Sport Ireland’s work.

This announcement came amid a backlash for giving a character reference to former Irish Times sports journalist Tom Humphries. He also said he would not resume his Clare hurling coaching role.

Humphries was a friend of the hurler and had ghost-written his autobiography.

On Tuesday Humphries was jailed for 2½ years for grooming a girl from when she was aged 14 before sexually abusing her.

In his testimonial earlier this month, Cusack highlighted Humphries’s volunteer work with the GAA, while expressing “shock and disappointment” at his offending.

Cusack later apologised for writing the character reference. He said he was trying “to help a human in a dark place who asked me for help.”

A statement was also issued on Tuesday by Sunday Times chief sports writer David Walsh who had given a testimonial for Humphries.

Walsh said he “unequivocally condemned” what Humphries did and had “every sympathy for the victim”.

“I have read her victim impact statement and have some sense of the terrible ordeal she has been through.”

In writing a reference he was “ not in any way condoning the crime,”, he said yesterday.

“Tom did a terrible wrong for which he has now been given a custodial term”.

Hugely regarded’

Walsh is best known for his work exposing cyclist Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat.

In the character reference handed to court by the defence earlier this month, Walsh paid tribute to Humphries’s sports writing and told the judge the accused was a “hugely regarded, hugely respected national figure”.

Later in the face of criticism he said he felt he could not abandon a friend of 30 years.

The testimonials provoked anger among some abuse victims, among them Kate Brennan Harding .

“I get so angry when I hear this stuff about testimonials. Because I don’t think we can compartmentalise abusers. When we do that we forget there’s a complete thread of this person’s actions running through all parts of their lives,” she said.

Defended by many

She was abused by her grandfather Liam Harding when she was young. Finally, aged 12, she found her voice, telling people that he had sexually abused her for much of her childhood. He was defended by many.

Some, she told The Irish Times, rejected her version of events, saying he “was a great man”,or, in the words of one that she remembers , “Ah sure he might have been a bit dirty but wasn’t he grand?”

Then she lost her voice for real: “I literally couldn’t talk. I wasn’t a mute but whenever there was anyone around I couldn’t speak.” Her allegations split her family, with claims that memories had been “planted” in her head.

Liam Harding died a short time later and the case never went to court. She recovered her voice but still suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brennan Harding does not agree with character references in cases such as Humphries, even when they are not condoning his offences.

“Lots of people know abusers a long time. With someone who has pleaded guilty to abuse, in that capacity, you can’t stand with them any more in court.

“I’m disgusted at Dónal Óg for doing it. You should have love and compassion . . . but you don’t stand up for [an abuser] in a court of law.

“When someone does terrible things, there’s nothing to stop you from still being their friend. But don’t do it in court.”

“You can’t separate out different aspects of an abuser in a court of law,” she says.

“You don’t hear character references for the victim. With the exception of a victim impact report, their voices, their stories are lost in the court process.”

Diluted message

Cliona Saidlear of Rape Crisis Network Ireland agrees. “When you have the testimonials, when you have the 50 local people lining up to shake the hand of the convicted person, you dilute the message.”

She added: “ What you have to do is think about the impact of that character reference will have because it has an impact beyond the person you are writing that letter for.”

In terms of usefulness to an accused, testimonials still have some, very limited, value, says Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, who recently stepped down from the Court of Appeal.

“Assuming they are accurate they may be able to make a court aware of certain qualities that a person may have that could be taken into account when sentencing,” he said.

“But generally speaking the part that they play is quite limited,” he said. He said it was entirely appropriate for them to be submitted if it did not comment on culpability.

But should the professional achievements of someone like Humphries be something that is taken into account when deciding sentence?

“Well, possibly,” says Sheehan. “It might be something the court could take into consideration to be weighed against the damage done by the criminal offending. I felt some of the criticism of the people who supplied the references [in Humphries’s case] was unfair.”

Brennan Harding believes the criticism was not only fair, but necessary. “It’s like lancing a boil. It’s painful but it’s must healthier in the long run to have these discussions about how we view abusers.”

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