Scouting rape allegation: Elliott safeguarding report was ‘grim reading’

Scout body rejects ‘wrongdoing’ claims and says protection of ‘paramount importance’

Scouting Ireland: “The safety and protection of all our members and volunteers is of paramount importance to us.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Scouting Ireland: “The safety and protection of all our members and volunteers is of paramount importance to us.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

On January 13th, 2018, the directors of Scouting Ireland were given an hour to read a highly critical report on the organisation, one that found its handling of a 2016 sexual assault complaint had been “deeply flawed”.

The board members were not allowed to keep copies of the full report, which are currently securely locked in Scouting Ireland’s national office in Larch Hill, near Stackstown Golf Course in Dublin.

The review stemmed from a sexual assault complaint made nearly two years ago by a woman, who claimed she was allegedly sexually assaulted by another volunteer during a 2009 camping trip when she was an 18-year-old scout leader.

In a statement to The Irish Times, the chief executive of Scouting Ireland, Dr John Lawlor, said an initial disclosure had occurred in 2015, followed by a formal complaint thereafter.

“We advised the volunteer to make a formal complaint to the gardaí without further delay and supported them over a period of months to help them do this.” He added that she remained “a valued member of Scouting Ireland”.

The volunteer who had had allegations made against him was first asked to voluntarily abstain from scouting while the matter was being investigated by the gardaí. Subsequently, he was suspended.

Later, the Director of Public Prosecutions directed that no prosecution should take place. Following this, the National Management Committee of Scouting Ireland lifted his suspension and he returned to scouting.

The safety and protection of all “is of paramount importance to us”, said Dr Lawlor, adding that statutory obligations “are strictly observed”. Interference in inquiries “no matter how slight or well-intentioned” is forbidden.

However, a summary report into the complaint found “bad management” and evidence of “wrongdoing” by senior volunteers who had lobbied for the alleged offender.

On January 13th, the report – carried out by Ian Elliott, an expert safeguarding policy consultant, who led the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children from 2007 – was described as “grim reading” by one director.

‘Safe organisation’

Mr Elliott had been brought on board six months before to carry out a safeguarding review. By January 23rd, he had read 20 case files and carried out 160 hours of work, not including travel from his home in Northern Ireland

He was blunt, according to the minutes: “He stated that he had previously told [the board of directors] that he didn’t consider [Scouting Ireland] a safe organisation but that, after six months, he is heartened by the apparent willingness to change and it is a safer organisation now that it was.”

The board considered a myriad of issues: the need for proper inquiries, the need to handle historic cases, if any; the need for Scouting Ireland to act if it is holding information anywhere in its files. “SI is liable,” the minutes record.

“How can people be disciplined for historic actions? How far back do we go? Cases need to be considered on an individual basis. If someone is still active, it needs to be assessed. If someone is deceased, there may be no organisational risk,” the directors debated.

However, they were agreed that anyone in the scouts facing allegations had to be “suspended without prejudice” pending a full investigation, and they said it was “wrong that [the board of directors] do not know of details of cases”.

In particular, several directors complained, saying there had been attempts by senior volunteers to lobby on behalf of the alleged offender, according to confidential minutes seen by The Irish Times.

Board members said it was “clear from the report that the [Scouting Ireland] staff were subjected to unreasonable pressure [and] there was a deliberate sabotage of the assessment” process, the minutes stated.

The review into the handling of the 2016 complaint about the alleged 2009 incident was also critical that no records were kept of a meeting between then national secretary Ollie Kehoe and the alleged offender.

‘Secret meeting’

Attempts by Scouting Ireland to obtain a record of the discussion, in what one board member called a “secret meeting”, have been unsuccessful. Dr Lawlor has written to Mr Kehoe to offer “a final opportunity to supply the requested record of the content of that interview”.

The national secretary is one rung below the “chief scout” position in the organisation’s hierarchy. The positions are elected by the membership for terms of three years. The separate professional arm of the organisation includes the chief executive, financial controller and administrative staff.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Kehoe, said “in my opinion there was no necessity to take minutes” and he did not have any audio recording of the one-to-one meeting.

Mr Kehoe said the meeting was held to discuss if the man would recognise the authority of the board of directors to potentially take disciplinary action again in the future if Scouting Ireland lifted his suspension.

Scouting Ireland is primarily funded through members’ annual subscription fees, but has also received more than €9 million in funding under various Department of Children grants since 2010.

Mr Elliott’s recommendations seek root-and-branch reform. There are existing safeguarding policy gaps that need to be “addressed urgently” to bring the organisation into compliance with Children First, the report outlined.

Scouting Ireland’s has one designated child protection officer who should be replaced with a safeguarding co-ordinator who would oversee three or four child protection officers, the report recommended.

Sexual misconduct

The review of the 2016 case also exposed weaknesses in its ability to remove members accused of sexual misconduct. Under current guidelines, volunteers are advised to “agree to abstain” from scouting activities if an allegation of misconduct is made against them.

The alleged offender refused to abstain from scouting activities and had to be formally suspended five months after the official complaint was made, according to sources interviewed by The Irish Times.

The report also advised that Scouting Ireland should draw up a defined policy that “prohibits engaging in sexual relations, using recreational drugs, or consuming alcohol, when engaged in scouting activities with young people”.

In response to the report, Mr Lawlor said Scouting Ireland “recognised that there are learnings for the organisation, and the adoption of the report’s recommendations are being implemented as an absolute priority”.

Having seen the report first on January 13th, the board met again 10 days later at Larch Hill House, where they heard from Mr Elliott, who said his dealings with people in the organisation had “been open and honest, risks have been identified and need to be addressed”.

‘Fit people’

Everything that needed to be done was about ensuring that Scouting Ireland had “fit people” as members; that it was s compliant with Children First rules and about ensuring that that all resources necessary to complete the work were provided.

Instances of “bad practice that are brought to light” should be critically examined, inquiries should be held with “appropriate confidentiality”, while gaps in the organisation’s policies and rules “should be addressed as a matter of priority”.

“New volunteers to Scouting Ireland should be assessed through interview and through the successful completion of a year’s probationary period, prior to full acceptance to membership of the organisation,” Mr Elliott proposed.

Better records must be kept, particularly “of all key interviews that they undertook in the case. Failure to do so should be regarded as grossly negligent, leading to possible disciplinary action,” he recommended.

“Past cases of alleged abuse should be re-examined as a matter of priority regarding determining whether current risk to individuals or to the organisation, are associated with the management of that case.”

Later, the board of directors held a wide-ranging discussion about the complaint and its handling – where some members are minuted as having complained that some of the lobbying that had occurred had tried “to sabotage the investigation”.

Such “wholly unacceptable” behaviour had amounted to “gross misconduct”, some believed, that perhaps had left the organisation open to “huge reputational and financial risk”, the minutes recorded.

STATEMENT BY SCOUTING IRELAND

An initial disclosure was made in 2015 to Scouting Ireland against an adult volunteer by a fellow adult volunteer relating to an incident in 2009.

The organisation took immediate action, implementing our safeguarding procedures. We advised the volunteer to make a formal complaint to the gardaí without further delay and supported them over a period of months to help them do this. We also provided counselling and support to the volunteer who remains a valued member of Scouting Ireland.

Scouting Ireland co-operated fully with the Garda investigation.

In accordance with our procedures, the volunteer against whom allegations were made was asked to voluntarily abstain from scouting activity while the matter was being investigated by the gardaí.

Subsequently, the volunteer in question was formally suspended. The DPP directed no prosecution, following which the National Management Committee decided to lift the suspension and they returned to scouting activities.

As is best practice, we continuously review and update our procedures. These reviews are conducted both internally and by external experts. As part of this continuous process, Scouting Ireland retained a recognised expert to review our safeguarding procedures in June last year. As part of this review, we requested a case review of our handling of this complaint. We are grateful for the very comprehensive review undertaken and the substantive report produced.

The safety and protection of all our members and volunteers is of paramount importance to us. Safeguarding procedures were implemented in Scouting Ireland before it was legally required and we are committed to informed compliance with best practices and our statutory obligations. We have very strong procedures which are entirely in line with best practices as required by Children’s First legislation and we have statutory reporting, responsibility to Tusla and the gardaí as appropriate. These obligations are strictly observed. We do not tolerate any interference with these procedures, no matter how slight or well-intentioned that interference might be perceived to be.

Having given extensive and careful consideration to the findings in this report, the National Management Committee of Scouting Ireland recognised that there are learnings for the organisation, and the adoption of the report’s recommendations are being implemented as an absolute priority.

In addition to implementing the report’s recommendations, the National Management Committee immediately ordered an independent investigation to ensure the complaint made in 2015 was handled in full compliance with our safeguarding procedures. This is being conducted by an independent external investigator and, to ensure due process, we will not be making further comment on it.