Scouting Ireland’s expulsion of chief scout seeks to end long saga
Organisation has been dogged by long-running controversy involving senior volunteers
‘Who the membership choose to represent them as chief scout and on their board may be more telling about how far the organisation has come.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
More than three years ago, the then board of Scouting Ireland gathered at its head office in Larch Hill, south Co Dublin, to pore over a stark report which warned its dysfunctional approach to child protection had put the organisation at risk of “extinction”.
The confidential report, written by child protection expert Ian Elliott in January 2018, found the approach to safeguarding policy from some senior figures “reckless and inappropriate”.
In a detailed review of one case, concerning a rape allegation involving two adult volunteers, Elliott found the way it was handled had been “deeply flawed”.
In the fallout after details of the report were revealed by The Irish Times that February, four of the organisation’s most senior figures stepped aside from their roles, pending an investigation.
On Monday, Scouting Ireland’s board announced it had expelled McCann, Shalloo and Kehoe as members of the organisation, following a lengthy disciplinary process. Bermingham was suspended from holding any position outside of her local troop for two years.
This initial controversy would eventually lead to revelations of major historical child sexual abuse involving Scouting Ireland’s two predecessor bodies: the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland (CBSI) and Scout Association of Ireland.
Even at the very start of the saga, some senior figures were concerned about where the unravelling thread they had begun to pull might lead. During a board meeting in December 2017, ahead of Elliott’s report, Shalloo said there should be “procedures in place to protect Scouting Ireland” before any historic cases were reopened.
Senior volunteers had in fact initially proposed keeping the review of child protection policy in-house, during an internal committee meeting in mid-2017.
Bermingham pushed for the review and proposed it be led by Kehoe, according to previously unreported minutes seen by The Irish Times.
It is understood Dr John Lawlor, Scouting Ireland’s chief executive at the time, insisted on an external expert, and Elliott was hired.
In the weeks after the controversy became public in early 2018, the position of McCann and the other three senior volunteers came under fire.
An internal “crisis management team” set up to deal with the issue recommended McCann resign, but he refused. During a one-on-one meeting, Lawlor also advised him to step down.
At a board meeting on March 4th, 2018, McCann led the group to recite the scout promise, which one board member present said felt like a “loyalty pledge”. McCann then told them he would be prepared to offer his resignation if the board sought it, but it voted by 10 to three not to do so.
Popular among grass-roots members, McCann secured re-election for a second three-year term as chief scout in April 2018.
Eventually, his hand was forced when then minister for children Katherine Zappone decided to suspend the organisation’s €900,000 in State funding, due to grave concerns over its governance.
Several days later, the four volunteers announced they would temporarily step aside, pending the outcome of an independent investigation by barrister Lorna Lynch into their actions.
Over the summer of 2018, the youth organisation was riven by infighting and tensions between professional staff and grass-roots supporters of McCann.
Following commitments to major governance reforms, Scouting Ireland’s State funding was restored, just weeks before it was set to run out of money.
However, that September, the board voted to reinstate McCann to chair an upcoming extraordinary general meeting, despite the ongoing inquiry. In response Zappone again suspended funding, only restoring it after the entire board was replaced.
The Lynch report was completed in January 2019. It made multiple findings against the four respondents in the handling of the rape allegation, which had been reported to Scouting Ireland in late 2015.
The report said Shalloo had a conflict of interest in the case, as he was friends with the alleged perpetrator. As a result, it was not appropriate he intervened during a child protection management team (CPMT) conference call in July 2016, while the case was under discussion, it said.
The CPMT, which oversaw safeguarding cases, voted to bring the matter to the board. Bermingham participated in the discussion despite the fact “she considered herself conflicted”, the report said.
It said she then failed as chair of the group to bring the matter to the board, despite a majority vote to do so, which Lynch criticised as inappropriate.
The report was critical that while the accused was suspended from the organisation, Shalloo arranged for him to meet McCann in January 2017. The meeting discussed the individual’s case and his concerns at how it was being handled.
The report found McCann did not act appropriately by attending the meeting, which others may have viewed as a “show of support for the subject of the complaint”. He also acted inappropriately by later failing to disclose the meeting to the board, it said.
The report found Kehoe “made a deliberate decision” not to disclose notes of a meeting he had with the subject of the complaint in February 2017, despite requests to do so, and “this was not appropriate”. It also found he “failed to disclose” the full details of the meeting to the board.
A subcommittee set up to deal with the findings in late 2019 decided to suspend McCann, Shalloo and Bermingham. The suspensions were upheld last year following a protracted appeals process. Kehoe had already been replaced when the previous board resigned.
At this stage the spotlight of the controversy had moved on, with revelations of historical child sexual abuse engulfing Scouting Ireland.
On foot of media coverage, the organisation had received disclosures from large numbers of survivors of child sex abuse in its two predecessor bodies.
A report by Elliott, published in May 2020, concluded child abuse had been “tolerated” at the highest levels, and covered up to protect the reputation of the movement.
Scouting Ireland has identified more than 350 alleged abuse survivors and 275 alleged perpetrators.
In a meeting on January 10th, the board decided to expel McCann, Shalloo and Kehoe as members of the organisation, bringing the near three-year disciplinary process to a close. Bermingham was suspended for two years from holding any position outside her local scout group.
The decision, which the board said followed evidence of misconduct under its disciplinary code, was finalised last week and communicated on Monday.
Throughout the controversy, McCann had continued to receive the backing of many other senior volunteers and a core cohort of loyal supporters.
In an open letter last December, McCann and three former chief scouts called for his then suspension to be lifted. One of those, Martin Burbridge, is running for election to the board at its national conference in May.
Members will also elect a new chief scout at the conference, with two candidates in the running: Damien Scanlon, a former CBSI national commissioner and retired garda, and Jill Pitcher Farrell, a rover scout in her 20s, who is seen by some as a possible fresh face.
While the board sought to draw a line in the sand from the past culture by expelling the three senior volunteers, who the membership choose to represent them as chief scout and on their board may be more telling about how far the organisation has come.
Who are the four volunteers involved?
Christy McCann, from Portrane, north Co Dublin, was first elected as chief scout, the voluntary head of the organisation, in September 2015.
McCann first joined the scouts in the 1970s, and has been involved for more than 45 years. He had previously held a number of officer roles and was re-elected as chief scout amid the governance and safeguarding controversy in April 2018.
Ollie Kehoe, from Co Wexford, became a scout in 1980 in the second Wexford unit. He became the organisation’s national secretary on an interim basis in September 2016 and was re-elected as an ordinary board member in April 2018.
David Shalloo, from Co Cork, is from a younger generation of volunteers and was elected as chief commissioner for youth programmes in 2016.
Thérèse Bermingham, from Killiney, south Co Dublin, was appointed to the position of chief commissioner for adult resources after another volunteer resigned in late 2012. She was re-elected to the role in 2016 for a second term.