Investigation criticises Scouting Ireland handling of rape allegation

Scouting body’s ‘deeply flawed’ response ‘highlighted a lack of awareness of risk’

A female scout leader claimed she had been raped by a male adult leader during a 2009 camp, when she was 18 years old. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

A female scout leader claimed she had been raped by a male adult leader during a 2009 camp, when she was 18 years old. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

During six years leading the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland Ian Elliott investigated the church’s handling of abuse cases in every diocese and many religious orders on the island.

In that time he led the reformation of the church’s child-protection policies. His experience, both then and earlier in his 40-year career, has made him Ireland’s go-to safeguarding expert.

In 2017 he was recruited by Scouting Ireland to inquire into the handling of an allegation made the previous before by a female scout leader who had claimed that she had been raped by a male adult leader during a 2009 camp, when she was 18 years old.

The Garda Síochána investigated and a file was passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP subsequently directed that no prosecution should be taken.

Mr Elliott produced a report for the board last January, which was amended last month. His conclusions, which ran to 556 words, do not make for comfortable reading for an organisation with 40,000 juvenile members and 12,000 adult volunteers.

“When the complaint was received, the alleged victim was advised that she should make a complaint to the guards and allow them to gather what evidence they required,” he wrote, and this had been done.

The complaint was reported to Scouting Ireland’s child-protection management team (CPMT): “It was reported to me that the chair of the CPMT was opposed to accepting that the incident came within the scope of the committee as no children were involved.”

By a majority the committee decided that the alleged offender should be asked to voluntarily abstain from participating in Scouting Ireland activities pending a full review. The alleged offender was told of the complaint and told who had made it.

“He was advised that he should not speak about it to anyone else in scouting. He was also advised that a liaison person would be appointed as a means of supporting him during the process of investigation.”

‘Unacceptable behaviour’

Despite being asked to abstain, the man continued to attend, “which further placed in question his acceptance of the request to abstain”, which Mr Elliott found to be “unacceptable behaviour”.

Scouting Ireland should have made it clear that “failure to recognise the legitimacy” of the request “would call into question” his suitability as a volunteer, but “there is no evidence to suggest that this was conveyed to the subject at any time”.

Following the decision not to prosecute, the Garda advised that the man should be again submitted to the Garda vetting unit: “This advice was not acted on and I would suggest that it should be without further delay,” Mr Elliott wrote.

During the weeks of the Garda investigation, while suspended, the man “engaged a lawyer who adopted an aggressive and confrontational approach”, insisting that there was no basis for suspending his client.

Once the complaint had been made, Scouting Ireland appointed a liaison person “to provide support for the alleged offender”, though Mr Elliott points out that the liaison issued emails on behalf of the man.

“The focus of [the liaison’s] complaints was alleged bad practice on the part of the staff which, in his view, had caused great and unnecessary distress to the subject,” wrote Mr Elliott.

“This person quickly moved to adopting the role of advocate for the subject and engaged in inappropriate lobbying on their behalf. Instead of being checked and advised that this lay outside their role, their correspondence was noted and responded to.

“This was a fundamental error which placed unnecessary pressure on staff involved in managing the case. If any liaison person in future fails to comply with their brief, then they should be removed from it,” says the report.

Instead of reining in the liaison, Thérèse Bermingham, the chair of the child-management team, noted and responded to the emails – adding “further weight to their content” and “undermining the actions of staff”.

The subject of the complaint then sought a meeting with the chief scout, Christy McCann, which took place in January 2017, where he complained about his treatment by Scouting Ireland staff.

The meeting was arranged by chief commissioner for youth programmes David Shalloo, who had previously declared a conflict of interests in the case, according to confidential board minutes from January 2018.

Litigation threat

Threats that serious litigation would be “pursued vigorously” were made at the meeting, while the chief scout noted that “the subject of the complaint presented as an arrogant young person”.

Later, Mr McCann briefed Mr Shalloo by telephone. No record was kept, no one else was told, but no action was taken on any of the complaints made to Mr McCann.

Mr McCann’s decision to meet the man showed a “blatant disregard” for safeguarding procedures, Mr Elliott said, saying that it was “simply incredible” that Mr McCann had not informed the board, staff or Mr Elliott that the meeting had taken place.

The Elliott review, completed in January, had to be amended last month, after the details of the private meeting came to light. Then it transpired national secretary Ollie Kehoe had met the man separately in early 2017.

There, Mr Elliott said “it would appear an agreement was reached that all sanctions placed upon him would be lifted”, but no written record was kept. Mr Kehoe has previously said he did not believe that minutes had been needed.

The failure to keep records of key meetings left Scouting Ireland in a position of “considerable vulnerability” if the case was subject to court action, Mr Elliott warned the board.

Just months after the suspension was lifted early last year, a decision was made to promote the man, which required the subsequent approval of the board of Scouting Ireland.

However, most of the directors had not been told about the rape allegation or the subsequent Garda investigation and the directors who knew about them “chose not to make the other members aware”, according to a review.

The failure to brief all directors, said Mr Elliott, “raises questions” for the organisation.

‘Deeply flawed’ response

Scouting Ireland’s response to the allegation by the young woman, who is still a member of the organisation, was “deeply flawed” and “highlighted a lack of awareness of risk”.

“The responsibility to actively consider and decide on whether the subject of the complaint was and is a suitable person, was in effect delegated to the guards and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Staff managing the woman’s complaint were “continually subjected to unreasonable and inappropriate pressures through individuals seeking to exert influence outside their role. Instead of being resisted and corrected, this was permitted to continue.

“The fact is that the subject of this complaint was returned to full status in Scouting Ireland with no evidence of their being a full examination of his suitability to continue as a volunteer,” he went on.

“The alleged victim was largely ignored, and it is not surprising that they decided to withdraw their complaint,” he went on, noting that it had never been contested that sexual relations had occurred, or that the initial contact had been consensual.

“It is disputed as to when and if that consent was withdrawn. The two witnesses are clear as to what happened from their perspectives, and the guards will have examined both,” the Elliot report goes on.

“The fact that they have decided not to proceed to a charge is taken as providing grounds for Scouting Ireland to set the complaint aside and treat it as not meeting a standard of proof that they would require.

“It is not clear as to what that standard of proof is. It is not defined anywhere, which raises significant difficulties in how any future complaints should be responded to, if there is an absence of forensic evidence or independent witnesses to support those allegations.”

The management of the case by Scouting Ireland highlights “significant gaps” that must be addressed: “There needs to be greater clarity as to what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

“There needs to be a clearly defined disciplinary code with effective sanctions applied to those who do not accept it. Scouting Ireland does not exist to meet the needs of the adults involved as volunteers.

“At all times, the needs of the younger members must take precedence over those of the adults. It should never be forgotten that this is the basis of the trust that is placed in Scouting Ireland by the many thousands of parents who allow their children to join,” he went on.

‘Wholly defamatory’

In a statement to The Irish Times, Ms Bermingham’s solicitor, Margaret Cordial, said there were “significant factual errors” in the report, which is “wholly defamatory towards our client”.

“Further, the author of the report failed to adhere to due diligence principles in the manner in which he prepared the critical case review. In particular, Ms Bermingham did not respond to emails from the liaison person, or in any way undermine the actions of Scouting Ireland staff, as alleged.

“She denies in the strongest possible terms the assertions of any wrongdoing as set out in the draft critical case review,” wrote her solicitor, adding that Ms Bermingham had not been asked to resign.

Saying Ms Bermingham had called for a full independent investigation, the solicitor said she did not believe it was appropriate to make any further statement that could compromise ongoing internal inquiries.

Last month, an internal crisis management committee proposed that Mr McCann, Mr Shalloo, and Ms Bermingham should resign, but none did so. Mr McCann offered to quit, but the board voted against it.

Mr McCann is running unopposed for re-election as chief scout at this weekend’s national council of Scouting Ireland. Both Mr Shalloo and Ms Bermingham’s positions are not up for election this year.

In a statement on behalf of Mr Shalloo, solicitor Dara Robinson said Mr Elliott had completed two reviews of the complaint and that “multiple corrections” had been made to the first.

“Any interaction between our client and the suspended individual came subject to a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions that no prosecution was warranted,” the solicitor wrote.

The resignation proposal by the crisis management team had been relayed only to McCann, said the solicitor, adding that “no pressure of any description” had been put on Mr Shalloo to quit.

The crisis management team, he said, was “an informal, ad hoc group assembled by the chief executive without notice to our client or indeed relevant members of the team for that matter”, Mr Robinson went on.

Scouting Ireland chief executive Dr John Lawlor said an independent investigation into the findings of the Elliot review has been commissioned. “We are focused on ensuring that the investigation proceeds and the findings are dealt with by the board of Scouting Ireland and that the recommendations of the overall safeguarding review are implemented in full,” he said.

Thanking Mr Elliott for his work to date, Mr Lawlor said Scouting Ireland would continue to improve its safeguarding procedures.

It has already implemented some of the recommendations, including better record-keeping and the automatic suspension “without prejudice” of volunteers subject to serious allegations, pending investigation.

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