‘Devastating’ sexual abuse of 18 residents in HSE-run centre in Donegal

Acts perpetrated with full knowledge of management for about 13 years, inquiry finds

At least 18 intellectually disabled residents of a Health Service Executive-run centre in Co Donegal were subjected "to sustained sexual abuse" during a period of about 13 years with the full knowledge of staff and management, an unpublished investigation has found.

Upwards of 108 incidents of "devastating" abuse were perpetrated on mainly non-verbal adults by another resident, who is given the pseudonym "Brandon" in the report. These included molestation, entering residents' beds at night, exposing himself, prolonged and loud masturbation close to residents, and possibly rape. Brandon died last year.

The report, from the HSE's National Independent Review Panel (NIRP), a copy of which has been obtained by The Irish Times, finds the Ard Gréine Court complex and Sean O'Hare Unit in St Joseph's hospital in Stranorlar had been run with a "disregard for residents' rights", allowing sexual abuse to continue "unabated".

It says it believes the impact of the abuse on the victims has still “not been fully understood” by HSE management.


‘Management skills’

The Independent Review of the Management of Brandon report was commissioned by the HSE national office in December 2018, to examine management of the perpetrator from 2003 until he moved to a nursing home in 2016.

It finds management at both service and regional level “had neither the management skills nor competence to deal with the serious problems Brandon’s behaviour presented”.

The “common strategy” to manage Brandon – to move him from ward to ward – “simply gave him access to a new cohort of clients whom he proceeded to assault until he was moved on again”.

It says records “suggest this sexualised behaviour had been ongoing ... prior to 2003”. The first recorded incident, where Brandon was found with his hands on a resident’s genitals, was in January 1997, with three further incidents recorded between then and December 2002.

None of the victims’ families were told until December 2018 – more than a decade after the abuse in some cases – despite repeated advice that this could be “interpreted as collusion or complicity”.

Stalled reports to Garda

Local HSE management did not formally report the assaults or alleged rapes to gardaí until last year, despite being urged to by the HSE's local safeguarding team. A file on the case has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.*

The abuse was brought to light when a whistleblower approached local Independent TD Thomas Pringle in 2016. He in turn brought it to the attention of senior officials in the regional HSE and then minister for disabilities, Finian McGrath.

A “look-back” review of files, commissioned by the regional HSE office, identified the scale of the abuse. The NIRP report was commissioned following the review. Completed in August 2020, it remains unpublished and has not been provided to families of Brandon’s victims.

Families of four of the victims have spoken to The Irish Times. They want to see the report and do not believe they would ever have known about the abuse had the whistleblower not contacted Mr Pringle.

Minister of State for Disabilities Anne Rabbitte, who travels to Donegal on Friday to meet some of the victims' families, is also calling on the HSE to publish the report.

A HSE spokeswoman said that as the NIRP “process” was continuing, “the HSE is not in a position to comment further”.

The NIRP did not respond to requests for comment.

*This article was amended at 9pm on October 18th, 2021

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times