Fresh face for Scouting Ireland after years of turbulence, but divisions remain

New chief scout says organisation has key role to play for children in post-Covid world

Jill Pitcher Farrell, a 23-year-old rover scout and adult volunteer, became the first woman to be elected chief scout, the voluntary head of the youth organisation. Photograph: Alan Place

Jill Pitcher Farrell, a 23-year-old rover scout and adult volunteer, became the first woman to be elected chief scout, the voluntary head of the youth organisation. Photograph: Alan Place

 

After more than three years of controversy and scandal, Scouting Ireland has sought to put a new face forward to the public, with members electing the youngest ever chief scout to front the organisation.

Jill Pitcher Farrell, a 23-year-old rover scout and adult volunteer, became the first woman to be elected chief scout, the voluntary head of the youth organisation.

Her mother was one of the first female leaders in the previous Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, and had encouraged her daughter to get involved in scouting.

Joining the cubs at 10 years of age, Pitcher Farrell said she quickly fell in love with the organisation, making friends and getting to appreciate nature.

As she got older she became more involved, volunteering as a leader in her local group, the Dollymount Sea Scouts, north Dublin.

While Scouting Ireland is at a crossroads, the movement has never been more vital for young people as the world emerges from the cloud of Covid-19, she said.

“Children need to get off the online world and get out into nature, and they need to socialise again. I think scouting has such a big role to play,” she told The Irish Times.

Camping trips away from home and other activities built a great “resilience” in children, moulding them into adults able to “overcome challenges”, she said.

Several current and former Scouting Ireland figures have indicated that her election signified a potential clean slate for the organisation.

Pitcher Farrell is currently undertaking a master’s in soil science and forestry in University of Limerick. She traces her interest in the field to Scouting Ireland, where she “learned to love nature”.

The organisation needs to be at the “forefront of the climate and biodiversity crisis”, she said.

The public had found a new appreciation for the outdoors during Covid-19, but now needs to move “from loving it, to protecting it”, she said. Scouts more than anyone need to be “stewards for the planet”, she said.

Controversy after controversy

Securing a decisive two-thirds majority, she was elected at an agm last Saturday, ahead of Damien Scanlon, a retired Garda and former national commissioner.

“The reaction has been hugely positive, from our young members and people who have been around 50 years . . . That’s the unity and positivity that we need,” she said.

Earlier this year, Christy McCann, the former chief scout, was expelled as a member of the organisation, along with former chief commissioner David Shalloo, and former national secretary Ollie Kehoe.

The three were expelled after a lengthy disciplinary process, following the organisation’s flawed handling of a serious sexual assault allegation, concerning two adult volunteers.

Thérèse Bermingham, a former chief commissioner, was not expelled, but suspended from holding any positions outside her local group for two years.

While the organisation had been dealing with controversy after controversy over the last three years, Pitcher Farrell’s focus was with her local group. “I was worried about how many people could we fit in a tent . . . scouting never stopped,” she said.

Speaking about her hopes for the chief scout role, she said she wanted to be an “ambassador” for the organisation.

“We’ve been dealing with a lot over the last couple of years and it’s sort of fell by the wayside, talking about what scouting does for kids,” she said.

Local troops across the country are beginning to resume activities – planning hikes and camps for the coming summer – after being stood down for long periods during the pandemic.

Scouting Ireland’s membership has fallen from more than 50,000 in 2019 to 45,727 at present. Visitors to its main campsite in Larch Hill, near the foot of the Dublin Mountains, dropped from 14,536 people in the six months prior to Covid-19, to just 1,685 during the early months of the pandemic.

The disruption of Covid-19 aside, the movement is coming out of the most turbulent period in its 113-year history. It has had to weather governance controversies, internal fighting between factions, near financial collapse and revelations of a major historical child sex abuse scandal.

The abuse controversy relates to the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland (CBSI) and the Scout Association of Ireland, which merged to form Scouting Ireland in 2004. The youth organisation has identified more than 350 alleged survivors who were sexually abused as children in the predecessor organisations, and 275 alleged perpetrators.

Child protection expert Ian Elliott: Scouting Ireland has improved a ‘tremendous amount’ over the last three years. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Child protection expert Ian Elliott: Scouting Ireland has improved a ‘tremendous amount’ over the last three years. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Ian Elliott, who previously led reforms in the Catholic Church, was drafted in as a child protection expert to review Scouting Ireland’s safeguarding policies in mid-2017.

Initially pitched as six weeks of work, the thread that Elliott began to unravel would lead to a total overhaul of safeguarding policy and governance, and later uncover systemic historical abuse.

In a final report, published in May 2020, Elliott concluded past abuse had been tolerated at the highest levels of former scouting bodies, and covered up.

Speaking one year on, Elliott told The Irish Times the organisation had improved a “tremendous amount” over the last three years.

“They’ve taken a while to address all the issues, and I’m not saying it’s perfect now, but it is so much better and I would have confidence in them to build on the progress,” he said.

The organisation was “no longer in a state of denial”, and its board had confronted the Pandora’s box of past abuse, after Elliott first disclosed what he had begun to find in late 2018.

Evidence uncovered during his review into the historical abuse pointed to the existence of an organised “clique” of abusers in the past, operating at the highest levels of the CBSI, Elliott said.

This group is believed to have shared knowledge and information with each other, and in some cases provided children for others in the group to molest, he said.

“One particular man who I spoke to, he spoke about being abused by a known perpetrator, but that abuser taking him to another abusers’ house, to be abused,” he said. “I’m quite sure that there would have been an understanding between them, and there would have been communication between them,” Elliott said.

Devastated by revelations

There was a suggestion, several sources said, that some of the now deceased former high-ranking alleged perpetrators also had links to Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organisation.

Elliott said this line of inquiry had been “impossible” to bottom out, and would be “extremely difficult” to prove. “I didn’t really have a mandate to pursue that,” he said.

Some volunteers had a knowledge that abuse was taking place, but it was allowed to continue largely unchallenged. “I find that very disturbing, in the sense that there was this acceptance,” Elliott said.

It appeared some had bartered their silence for support from powerful abusers, in attaining promotions or election within the organisation, he said.

Even now, Elliott said some people he spoke to during the review had not been completely forthcoming. “I think there were situations where people discussed with each other what they were going to say, before they came in,” he said.

There were many volunteers who “had given their whole lives to this movement” in good faith, who were left devastated by the revelations, he said.

Offenders in senior positions at the time of the historical abuse had often been “very powerful people” who used intimidation to maintain their grip on the leadership of the organisation.

“I met some remarkable people . . . who had basically spoken out against what was happening and had suffered to a degree as a consequence,” Elliott said.

The incoming chief scout said the abuse revelations had left her with a sense of shock and horror. “It made me feel horrible that everyone didn’t have a good experience in scouting as I did,” Pitcher Farrell said.

The organisation was now the better for having dealt with its past demons, she said. “It coming out, we learned from that, that it should never happen again.”

A follow-up audit of current child protection policy, completed by Elliott this February, said there was no indication the “bad practice of previous years was still around today”.

The organisation had a professionally-run service, “offering a high-quality response to any concerns” that arose, with a “strong, committed leadership in place”, he wrote.

One of the most high-ranking perpetrators was former chief scout Joe Lawlor, now the subject of multiple abuse allegations. Lawlor served two terms as CBSI chief scout in the 1980s and 1990s, and worked as a Department of Justice probation officer, responsible for young offenders.

He was first named as an abuser in a previous RTÉ Investigates programme on the scouting scandal.

One of his alleged victims, represented by Coleman Legal Partners, is taking a civil case against Scouting Ireland and the Probation Service.

The man, who did not wish to be named, claims from approximately 12 years of age, he was abused by Lawlor on an almost weekly basis for close to 2½ years.

The alleged abuse took place in scout halls and during visits to the boy’s home in Lawlor’s capacity as a probation officer, according to court filings seen by The Irish Times.

At one point, it is alleged, the boy was told by Lawlor that he could have him sent to prison “at the stroke of a pen” if he disclosed the abuse to anyone.

The first abuse allegation against Lawlor was reported to Scouting Ireland in 2009, shortly after he died, according to a source involved in the organisation at that time.

A complaint had been reported to the Probation Service in 2000, by a mother who alleged Lawlor sexually abused her son in 1974.

Following the allegation, which Lawlor denied, he was moved to a position in Cloverhill Prison, where he would not have dealings with young people, and retired in 2003.

Senior Department of Justice officials previously told Department of Children colleagues any State inquiry into the scouting abuse should also review how allegations against Lawlor were handled by the Probation Service.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin previously called for a statutory inquiry into the abuse scandal, when he was leader of the opposition during the last Dáil. The previous government said it would consider a State-backed investigation, but nothing materialised.

Commenting on the idea of a statutory inquiry, Elliott said he did not think it would bring any “added value”, further than his own report. “I’m not a great supporter of statutory inquiries, they tend to be very slow, very formal,” he said.

While the youth organisation appears to have weathered the reputational storm, the financial cost of the past abuse is likely to shadow it for years to come.

Scouting Ireland is currently facing about 30 legal cases from alleged survivors filed in the High Court, with that number expected to grow.

Financial pinch

Initially, the organisation had set aside a little more than €2.5 million in liabilities to cover the costs of the lawsuits. However, that has since increased to more than €6.2 million.

It has also had to cut most of its staff to three-day weeks, due to the financial pinch of Covid-19, and posted a €1.7 million deficit last year.

The organisation has been far from a united front as the controversies of the last three years have played out.

Even now, divisions and fault lines remain within the organisation. A 55 per cent majority of delegates backed a motion of no confidence in the current board, at its agm last Saturday.

While not calling for directors to step down, it was a shot across the bows from disgruntled members.

Support for the motion was drawn from those who thought McCann was treated unfairly, local groups feeling a financial strain due to Covid-19, and others who felt the board was taking the movement away from its volunteer-led roots.

Speaking at the agm, Adrian Tennant, outgoing chair of the board, hit out at the “constant negativity” from a vocal minority, which he said amounted to bullying behaviour online.

Garrett Flynn, chair of the 115th Ballinteer scout group, was one of those who pushed the no-confidence motion.

Mistrust between the top and the bottom of the organisation had been entrenched for years, and was a “deep rooted challenge” to address, he said. Members were rankling at what Flynn described as the “patronising” treatment of volunteers by the board.

There was a narrative that opposition was coming from “a small group of troublemakers”, but Flynn said the no-confidence vote showed resistance was widely held.

Commenting on the internal tensions, Pitcher Farrell said as chief scout she hoped to be a “link” between the grassroots and the board. “That will really help the tension, it’s a piece that has been missing over the last few years,” she said.

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