Scouting Ireland faces uncertain future in wake of child sex abuse scandal
As more allegations come to light, the organisation could face a fatal financial cost
Scouting Ireland’s headquarters at Larch Hill in Dublin. File photograph: Cyril Byrne
Allan Mathews (35) has been involved with scouting since he was eight years old, and is now a leader with the St Patrick’s group, in Dundalk, Co Louth, one of Scouting Ireland’s largest troops in the country.
In the troop den on Thursday night a group of 20 cubs, aged from nine to 11, were learning how to navigate using compasses. Upstairs a larger group of scouts, ranging in age from 12 to 15, played a series of games on their last meeting before Christmas.
The crisis over the historic child sexual abuse scandal facing the century-old youth organisation appeared far removed from the noisy Dundalk scout den.
“My stomach turned, it’s not something that you ever want to hear,” Mathews said, describing the moment he saw the news of the controversy break.
An ongoing review by Scouting Ireland has identified 317 alleged child sex abuse victims, and 212 alleged abusers.
Evidence from the review details abuse that occurred at “all levels within the organisation”, cases where information was “covered up” and alleged perpetrators were permitted to “move from group to group”, Scouting Ireland’s new chairperson Aisling Kelly told a stunned meeting of senior scout leaders on Monday.
“If that was true, that was disgusting, the thought of it is sickening . . . It’s not something that I would ever have been able to comprehend happening,” Mathews said.
“We detest the thoughts of what happened to the poor innocent kids,” he went on, adding that he hoped the gardaí would investigate allegations now surfacing to the fullest extent.
Despite it being the era of the smartphone and computer game, the Dundalk troop’s numbers have increased year on year. The troop has 180 juvenile members, and “we could take 30 more kids tomorrow morning,” Mathews said.
The organisation has taken a hit in relation to the public, but the national scandal has not eroded the trust between parents and local leaders in Dundalk, he said.
In recent months Mathews’s six-year-old son joined the younger “beavers” age group. “It’s a way of life, I could never see myself leaving, I’m in it 27 years [and] it’s something I’m proud of being a part of,” Mathews said.
The aim of scouting is to help develop young people into independent individuals with good morals, who “know how to treat people well,” he said.
“We’ve had people that have been fostered that had gone through terrible upbringings, that were brought here. To see them grow, develop, change and come out the other end on a happier path, that’s what you want to do,” Mathews said.
The first threads of the controversy came loose last February, when The Irish Times reported the details of a confidential review by safeguarding expert Ian Elliott. The review found Scouting Ireland’s handling of a rape allegation from 2016, concerning two adult leaders, was “deeply flawed”.
Elliott’s report also identified shortcomings with safeguarding standards in the organisation, and recommended an audit of the handling of historic allegations.
Over several months Elliott conducted that review, based on historic child-protection files; interviews with former staff and senior volunteers; and information from a substantial number of alleged victims who had begun to come forward.
In mid-November the organisation announced the review had identified 108 alleged abuse victims, and 71 alleged perpetrators. Three weeks on and both figures have nearly tripled, as more abuse survivors continue to come forward. The ongoing review found the majority of the alleged abuse occurred between the 1960s and 1990s.
Paul Mones is a prominent American lawyer, who has represented hundreds of abuse victims in cases against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). In 2012, a case taken by Mones resulted in the release of the “perversion files” – thousands of pages of documents detailing accusations of abuse held by the organisation from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The files tell a story of scout leaders who faced allegations being allowed to “go quietly” from the BSA, Mones said. “These files show chapter and verse of the knowledge of men who joined and abused,” he added.
The highly-publicised 2012 case “unleashed scores of lawsuits all over the country,” after which the BSA approach to abuse allegations “did a 180”, Mones said.
The previous policy was akin to “scorched earth”, where the organisation adopted an aggressive defence against lawsuits, he said. After the public scandal the BSA’s approach now is to resolve cases in settlements where possible, he said.
The scandal has resulted in a number of multimillion-dollar court payouts for abuse victims. Earlier this week the BSA hired a law firm to explore filing for bankruptcy in order to restructure, according to media reports.
The BSA did not respond to questions from The Irish Times on the abuse scandal.
Daniel O’Connell, a solicitor with Irish firm Coleman Legal Partners who specialise in abuse cases, said the firm had 25 clients looking to take cases against Scouting Ireland. Some 21 of those complainants had contacted the firm in the last three weeks, he said.
“I have a few different clients who had the same abuser. When you see the shocking numbers coming out that does make you sit up and think,” O’Connell said.
In late 2014, a BBC news report on an increase in lawsuits against the Scout Association in the UK since the Jimmy Savile abuse revelations featured the testimony of a victim who was molested in the scouts.
Prior to that point, David McClenaghan, a partner at law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp who specialises in abuse cases, had taken about 28 legal actions against the Scout Association. Following the news report the firm was “contacted by over 400 people who were affected by it,” McClenaghan said.
Since then the firm has represented more than 200 abuse victims in proceedings against the organisation, with awards ranging from £15,000 to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
McClenaghan said he had, in several lawsuits , “absolutely” come across historic cases where people had approached higher-level authorities in the Scout Association about abuse, but “then nothing had been done about it”.
Failure to act on allegations to authorities appeared to be “individuals making mistakes rather than being directed not to do anything” in cases he had seen, McClenaghan said.
A spokesman for the Scout Association said it could not comment on the claims unless provided with specific cases where individuals allegedly failed to act on allegations.
To date, Bolt Burdon Kemp has recovered more than £2 million in compensation for abuse victims from the Scout Association.
The association was unable to identify who its insurers had been for a period between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, meaning it has had to pay the costs of any abuse lawsuits from that period from its own funds.
Scouting Ireland now faces similar problems identifying past insurance records required to help indemnify the organisation against the cost of future legal cases.
The organisation was formed in 2004 following a merger of two legacy organisations, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland (CBSI) and the Scout Association of Ireland (SAI).
The meeting of senior volunteers on Monday at Scouting Ireland’s national head office in Larch Hill, Dublin, heard the organisation is facing challenges locating past insurance documents related to the SAI.
“At the moment there is only one insurer who is willing to insure Scouting Ireland in this country,” Aisling Kelly told the private meeting. The historic documentation for the CBSI was in “much better shape” than records from the SAI, she said.
If Scouting Ireland is forced to bear the entire cost of lawsuits from past abuse in the SAI itself, the cost is “going to be huge,” McClenaghan said.
The organisation does not have substantial financial reserves. Twice this year its State funding was suspended by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, due to governance concerns following controversy over the flawed handling of the 2016 rape allegation.
Scouting Ireland’s approach to the abuse revelations has been to set up a victim- support scheme to provide counselling services to survivors. There is a recognition inside the organisation that if large numbers of alleged abuse victims pursue civil cases against Scouting Ireland, the costs could collapse the organisation.
Its board is due to consider a range of emergency financial measures at a meeting on Saturday. If the number of alleged victims continues to increase, even selling assets such as scout dens may be considered, Kelly has said.
The Pandora’s box of past child sexual abuse in the organisation, which lay dormant for decades, has now burst open, with the number of abuse survivors coming forward expected to keep increasing.
Scouting Ireland’s board has vowed that nothing will be hidden, and that legacy failings will be addressed transparently. However, current goodwill towards the organisation may not be enough to save it from the sins of the past.
Past scout abuse: ‘He laced me with drinks then brought me into a tent’
David (not his real name, as he does not wish to identify himself publicly) was 15 years old when he attended a national scout camp in the late 1970s, where he was allegedly raped by a scoutmaster.
“He laced me with drinks – whiskey and beer – and then brought me into a tent,” David said. “He physically raped me, then he gave me a dirty dishcloth to wipe myself after,” he said.
The trauma of the past abuse has “destroyed” his life, and David now struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide.
“At the time I couldn’t tell anybody. I have three children, I can’t tell them I was raped,” he said. His wife knows about the past abuse, but the trauma has put a huge strain on their relationship, he said.
Earlier this year David contacted Scouting Ireland, and a number of days later met two officials from the youth organisation, who apologised over the past abuse, and were “very supportive,” he said. Scouting Ireland told him the organisation had received other allegations of abuse in relation to the CBSI scoutmaster, who is now deceased.
David is currently out of work, and said he may never work again due to his serious mental health problems. Scouting Ireland is providing him with a small travel allowance to attend counselling sessions once a week, he said.
“I can’t sleep at night, I wake up some nights puking. I’m a middle-aged man, and my life is destroyed,” he said. “Scouting Ireland are a great organisation . . . all I want to know is the kids now in Scouting Ireland are safe,” he said.
Scouting Ireland has set up a confidential abuse helpline – tel: 1800 221 199.