Order of Malta to conduct investigation following sexual abuse cases

Victims were molested after being incapacitated with stolen medication

The Order of Malta is to conduct a wide-ranging internal investigation into child protection standards in the first aid organisation, following sexual abuse by two former volunteers.

The second of two criminal cases involving former volunteers in the organisation’s ambulance corps over the sexual abuse of two 15-year-old boys concluded on Friday.

The victims were molested after being incapacitated with medication stolen from the first aid organisation, with the main perpetrator wearing his Order of Malta uniform while abusing one of the teenagers.

The details of how the two volunteers abused positions of trust in the organisation to carry out the crimes emerged in court hearings stretching over more than 2½ years.

Scott Browne was jailed for 11 years with 18 months suspended in 2020. He had pleaded guilty to the oral rape of a 15-year-old boy at a location in Co Laois on May 7th, 2018, and the sexual assault of another teenager two weeks later at locations in Dublin and in the Wicklow Mountains.

Jordan Murphy pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Browne and videoing one of the assaults and on Friday was jailed for 7½ years, with the final two years suspended.

Sentencing him on Friday, Justice Paul McDermott said while Murphy “may be regarded as a young man who was preyed upon by Browne” and was also groomed, he still carried a “high degree of responsibility” for facilitating the abuse.

At the time of the offences Browne was 27 and Murphy was 18. Both from Co Kildare, the pair had met through the Order of Malta.

Browne had risen through the ranks of the ambulance corps and then used a network of friends developed in the first aid organisation to "target young boys", the Central Criminal Court heard.

Investigation

Gardaí opened an investigation in 2018 when one victim reported what had happened shortly after the incident.

In that case, Browne and Murphy had befriended the 15-year-old victim through a connection in the Order of Malta, and stayed in contact with the teenager over the Snapchat messaging app.

On May 20th, 2018, the pair picked the teenager up from his Dublin home. In messages beforehand, the teenager was told they had a “green whistle” from the Order of Malta that he should try, which they said was like laughing gas.

Green whistle is a pipe-like device used to inhale Penthrox, a drug used by paramedics for emergency pain relief, which Browne had stolen from the first aid organisation.

After eating in a nearby fast food restaurant they began to push the teenager to try the drug. Initially the boy said he would think about it, before later agreeing. Sitting in the back seat of Browne’s car he was given the device and told to use it like an inhaler. Soon he could no longer feel his arms. Browne then attached an oxygen mask onto the whistle, pushing it onto the victim’s face and forcing him to inhale until he passed out.

When the teenager regained consciousness Browne was sexually assaulting him in the back of the car. As the victim began to pull away, Browne told Murphy “ah he’s coming back now”, to which the pair laughed, the court heard.

They had driven to a secluded location in Co Wicklow where the teenager feared he would be left. The boy was driven home and shortly afterwards told his family what had happened. They then took him to report the crime to gardaí.

Several days later gardaí arrested Browne and recovered the green whistle device from the glovebox of his car. Two empty vials of Penthrox were also found in his bedroom during a follow-up search.

In his first interview with gardaí Browne was described as “guarded”, but then began co-operating and talking more extensively in later interviews, Garda sources said. He admitted to being with the victim on the night, but initially said the sexual acts had been “consensual”.

In Murphy’s interviews with gardaí he confirmed he was driving the car on the night and claimed Browne and the victim were “fooling around” in the back seat.

The green whistle device had been altered to increase the potency of the drug, and Det Garda Patrick Twomey told the court the device had been fixed to an oxygen mask for "maximum effect".

Examinations of both Browne and Murphy’s phones showed the pair had researched the effects of Penthrox. Internet searches from Browne two weeks previous had asked how much of the drug “does it take to knock a person out”.

During the investigation gardaí had been concerned at the lack of supervision and ease of access the perpetrators had to Order of Malta medication, one Garda source said.

In a victim impact statement, the child's mother said the abuse would "haunt" her son, who had been due to sit his Junior Cert exams in two weeks' time when he was abused.

He had gone from being a “typical” social teenager to someone who was withdrawn and distant. As Order of Malta volunteers, the perpetrators were people she believed her son “would look up to” and should have been able to trust.

The pair had “used their positions” in the organisation and the access that gave to medical drugs “to plan a horrendous act of sexual assault”, she said.

Video clips

During searches of Murphy’s phone gardaí uncovered several short video clips taken of what appeared to be the sexual abuse of a second victim.

In that case another 15-year-old boy had been orally raped by Browne, while Murphy filmed the abuse. The pair could be heard calling the victim’s name in the videos, which allowed gardaí to identify the boy by searching through the phone’s contact numbers.

Murphy had previously befriended the boy and on May 7th, 2018 picked him up from his Co Laois home with Browne.

The videos showed the teenager in the back seat of a car being told to inhale on the green whistle device. He was repeatedly asked to lift his arms, to gauge whether the drug was taking effect.

In one clip Browne – wearing his Order of Malta uniform – is shown holding the device to the boy’s mouth until he falls unconscious. The car was driven to an empty industrial estate where Browne then orally raped the teenager. In building the criminal case the videos were “the smoking gun”, one Garda source stated.

The victim never told anyone about the sexual abuse until gardaí investigating the first case called to his home. In his victim impact statement, the teenager said he had felt “betrayed” by the defendants, who he had viewed as his friends.

Defence counsel James Dwyer SC told the court Browne expressed regret for his actions and the damage he had done.

Sentencing him in May 2020 over his “lead role” in the abuse, Justice Paul McDermott said Browne had used his position in the Order of Malta “to perpetrate his crimes”, which he said was a “betrayal” of the values of the first aid organisation.

It is understood a Garda investigation into Browne is continuing but no further charges have yet been brought to date.

Defending Murphy at a hearing last month, Michael Bowman SC said his client had also been groomed by Browne.

Murphy was 15 when he met Browne who was more than 10 years older and had been in a position of “considerable authority” in their local Order of Malta unit, the defence said.

Murphy fell under the "influence" of Browne, who instigated a sexual relationship with him that he felt "guilted" into and lasted until he was 18, Mr Bowman said.

Widespread ‘shock’

News of the abuse controversy had caused widespread “shock” among Order of Malta ranks, one volunteer said.

Senior figures in the organisation have been bracing for a reckoning following the conclusion of the criminal cases.

Documents seen by The Irish Times reveal a previous complaint of alleged sexual assault had been made about Browne to the Order of Malta as far back as May 2015.

An 18-year-old volunteer alleged Browne had sexually assaulted him on an overseas trip to Lourdes, France.

A senior volunteer examined the allegation but Browne remained in the organisation. He was removed with Murphy only after the pair had been charged over the abuse of the two 15-year-old boys, according to a source.

The organisation’s board, known as the council, on Wednesday agreed to commission an internal investigation into safeguarding standards.

The organisation's president, Richard Duc de Stacpoole, wrote to members earlier this week, stating the investigation would identify "any new or improved safeguarding practices" to try prevent any "future occurrences". The inquiry would provide "limitation of damage to the reputation and integrity of our ambulance corps", he wrote.