Child abuse concerns in St John Ambulance were ‘open secret’

Former volunteers critical of the paramedic organisation’s response to abuse revelations

Keith Lambe in Phoenix Park. The former St John Ambulance member says there were several incidents where the abuser showed up unexpectedly during first-aid duties at Dublin Zoo, to spot check cadets on their skills. Photograph:  Donall Farmer

Keith Lambe in Phoenix Park. The former St John Ambulance member says there were several incidents where the abuser showed up unexpectedly during first-aid duties at Dublin Zoo, to spot check cadets on their skills. Photograph: Donall Farmer

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Concerns about alleged child sexual abuse by a former senior St John Ambulance officer were an “open secret” in the paramedic organisation for years, past members have claimed.

An investigation by The Irish Times last August revealed several men had been sexually abused in the 1990s by a senior figure in St John Ambulance.

The abuser, now in his 80s, was a senior figure in the Old Kilmainham division, and a member of the organisation from the 1950s until at least 2000. Five men have now come forward claiming they were sexually abused by the man in the voluntary paramedic organisation.

There was an “awareness” of child protection concerns about the perpetrator at the time in the organisation, according to several former volunteers.

Keith Lambe (39) joined the Ballyfermot division of St John Ambulance when he was about 10 years old in 1993. He was a member of the organisation into his late teens, leaving shortly before 2000.

While he was not abused by the senior figure, he remembered a cloud of concern that surrounded the man.

Youth members, known as cadets, were told by other officers that “under no circumstances” should they go off alone with him, he said.

“You’d hear stories of him being in the back of an ambulance with a boy. At the time you’d think these are just stories,” Mr Lambe told The Irish Times.

Grooming

There were several cadets known to always be in the perpetrator’s “shadow”, he said. As a teenager, with no understanding of the complex dynamics of grooming, he assumed there was no way someone would remain close to their abuser afterwards. “It was only years later you realise that’s how abuse works,” he said.

Mr Lambe said there were several incidents where the abuser showed up unexpectedly during first-aid duties at Dublin Zoo, to spot check cadets on their skills.

Where other officers might get cadets to demonstrate how to check for a pulse on another cadet, the abuser would have youths demonstrate on him, or demonstrate on them, he said. The perpetrator would often insist cadets checked the pulse of the femoral artery near the groin, during these tests, Mr Lambe added.

There appeared to have been an “awareness” among adult volunteers at the time, that the senior figure should not be left alone with boys, he said.

George Jefferies, a Health Service Executive nurse, was a long-serving St John Ambulance volunteer up until 2015. Speaking about the abuse revelations, he said he was “very disappointed” with the organisation’s response.

He said he was aware a complaint of abuse had been made against the senior figure some time around 2000, by one of the survivors, Mick Finnegan. Up to that point the man had been largely “untouchable”, likely in part due to his senior rank in the organisation, Mr Jefferies said.

The “quasi-military” mindset of the organisation had been stuck back in the 1940s, he said. Attempts to modernise the culture often ran up against brick walls, and the attitude to child protection policy had been lax.

Mr Jefferies also said there had been instances where the senior figure had taken groups of older teenage cadets on trips to Co Wexford, where alcohol would be supplied.

Dr Geoffrey Shannon, a prominent child law expert, has been commissioned to conduct an independent review into the organisation’s handling of the past abuse. He is expected to produce a report before the end of the year, drawing on a review of records, as well as interviews with survivors, and current and former members.

‘Open secret’

Éamonn Gaines, a volunteer from 1985 to 2011, recently wrote to the review, with a copy of his correspondence also shared with survivors.

Mr Gaines claimed child protection concerns about the perpetrator had been an “open secret” within the organisation in the 1990s.

There had been an “atmosphere of mistrust and persistent rumours of misconduct” surrounding the individual, he wrote. Mr Gaines said the organisation’s culture was for years resistant to change, describing it as a rigid “gerontocracy”.

The decision by St John Ambulance to commission the independent review followed pressure from Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.

The organisation’s commissioner, John Hughes, and chair of its board, David Strahan, met Mr O’Gorman last December to discuss the controversy.

The organisation said that, to its knowledge, past alleged sexual assaults only related to one volunteer, according to minutes of the meeting, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“A lookback of records did not elicit any other knowledge of complaints. The general view amongst staff and volunteers was that, in the past, there was no knowledge of sexual abuse in the organisation,” the meeting heard.

They said their records showed the senior figure was either on leave or under suspension in October 2001, following Mr Finnegan reporting the abuse, with the perpetrator later leaving the organisation.

Past abuse

A Garda investigation into the past abuse is also ongoing, after one of the survivors made a report to gardaí late last year.

The British arm of the voluntary paramedic organisation previously faced revelations of historical child sex abuse.

In 1998, three men were jailed over the sexual abuse of multiple St John Ambulance cadets in Hampshire, England, in what was described at the time as a “ring” of abusers.

St John Ambulance UK said it did not wish to discuss the past abuse scandal when contacted by The Irish Times.

St John Ambulance Ireland has said it currently has a robust child protection policy, with a rigorous recruitment and vetting process for volunteers.

Those with any information related to historical child abuse in St John Ambulance have been asked to contact Dr Geoffrey Shannon and the Independent Review at: g.shannon@stjohnambulancereview.ie

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact: One in Four (oneinfour.ie), Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888) or HSE counselling services (1800-235234)