St John Ambulance child sex abuse: ‘I remember not being believed’

Tusla investigation finds former senior figure in voluntary body abused children

Mick Finnegan was about 14 when he was abused by a senior figure in St John Ambulance. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Mick Finnegan was about 14 when he was abused by a senior figure in St John Ambulance. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

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Allegations of child sexual abuse made against a former senior member of St John Ambulance have been deemed to be founded, following an investigation by Tusla, the child and family agency.

Mick Finnegan (37) from Crumlin, in south inner city Dublin, was 12 when he joined the voluntary paramedic organisation in the 1990s. He was about 14 when he was abused by a senior figure in the ambulance service, which was set up in Ireland in 1903 and provides first aid at sporting, music and community events.

Finnegan and two other survivors; Paul Mulholland, who grew up in Clondalkin, and Martin Hoey, from Finglas, have spoken publicly for the first time to The Irish Times about being abused.

Finnegan grew up in Crumlin, an area he says was “destroyed with drugs” during the 1980s and 1990s. He was the eldest of four children and says his mother was delighted when he became involved with the organisation as he was steering clear of crime.

The grooming started shortly after he joined the Old Kilmainham division of St John Ambulance as a youth member or “cadet”.

“You got given a uniform, they taught you how to do first aid, you got to go on duties. I loved it because you got free entry into Croke Park, and Lansdowne Road and the RDS,” Finnegan said.

His abuser was a senior officer involved with the Old Kilmainham division, and a member of the organisation from the 1950s until at least 2000. The man is now in his 80s and cannot be named for legal reasons.

Last September, an investigation by Tusla into the child sexual abuse allegations against the man deemed them to be founded.

The man appealed the finding against him and on June 23rd an independent appeals process upheld Tusla’s finding, according to correspondence.

“He’d be using the model of teaching first aid to encourage me and others to touch him inappropriately,” Finnegan said.

One method was to ask cadets how many places in the body you can take a pulse. “He goes: ‘Do you know the most accurate place to get a pulse reading is the femoral artery’, so he’d have you root around in his groin to get a pulse,” Finnegan recalled.

“Over the period of time he would escalate it to masturbation and touching me inappropriately, and then ultimately rape.”

Pulse sites

Finnegan said the abuse started in 1997 when he was about 14, on the first occasion when the pair were on duty for St John Ambulance at Dublin Zoo.

After a patrol of the area, Finnegan returned to the medical aid post where the senior figure was lying on a bed, and instructed the teenager to demonstrate a first-aid initial assessment on him.

“I went through the process of doing the primary survey, and he says ‘What about pulse sites, where’s the pulse sites?’,” he said.

“From there he turned around and he grabbed my hand and he said, ‘This is the best place to get a pulse on someone,’ and it was in the crease of his groin.

“He forced me to masturbate him until he ejaculated and he held my hand there, and then as if nothing happened he pulled his trousers up.”

The abuse would continue regularly at first-aid postings or in the back of ambulances. When Finnegan was about 15 he was taken by his abuser to an empty house to help move some items in.

“He says ‘Come on in here’ and he’s lying on the bed. And I’m just looking at him thinking: ‘What the f*** – not again. He wanted me to masturbate him and I wasn’t having it,” he said.

“He punched me repeatedly, held me down forcibly and raped me. I was in so much pain I was bleeding [for] days after the attack. He pulled his trousers up and I was there on the bed crying my eyes out.”

The damage was to such an extent he still suffers from incontinence today. After that attack, Finnegan moved to a different division, and about a year later reported the abuse to the organisation.

Another senior figure in the organisation, now deceased, was tasked with investigating the allegations, and took a statement from Finnegan in a Ballsbridge hotel.

“He offered me a load of cash in an envelope, and maybe he was only nice and felt sorry for me, but he offered me a load of cash, I told him to f*** off,” Finnegan said.

On the organisation’s overall response, he said: “I remember not being believed.”

‘None of them believed me’

The fallout from his abuse led to a breakdown in his family relationship and by the time he turned 18 he was living on the streets in Dublin.

“When I was homeless nobody gave a f*** about me. When I was eating out of bins, no one cared. When I was queueing up outside hostels in the rain soaking wet, they didn’t care about me,” he said.

“I had members within the organisation who would walk by me when they saw me on Grafton Street, none of them believed me.”

In 2001, Finnegan walked into Sundrive Garda station in Crumlin to report the abuse. The accused was arrested and interviewed over the allegations, with gardaí sending a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). However, the DPP directed that no prosecution be taken.

More than a decade after he first reported the abuse to St John Ambulance, Finnegan would again contact the organisation about what happened to him.

In 2011, the then commissioner of St John Ambulance, Prof Patrick Plunkett, responded to Finnegan and apologised.

In an email on June 10th, 2011, Plunkett said he had been “aware there was some concern” about the former member when he took over as commissioner in 2008. A review of the organisation’s files uncovered only “tangential references with nothing specific” on the allegations against the man, he said.

“A decision appears to have been taken that he was not suitable to remain in the brigade and he was persuaded to resign,” Plunkett said.

This, he said, was “a (sadly belated) attempt to protect vulnerable children”, and he apologised “for anything we did, or did not do, as an organisation”.

Plunkett said he told the organisation’s then child-protection officer their services “are no longer needed in this role” and later appointed an external social worker to the position.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Plunkett said that as commissioner he had set about reforming child-protection policies, which were not in keeping with the “more modern” children-first approach of the Health Service Executive.

A process of Garda vetting adult members was instigated, which “turned up some other things”, leading to two other individuals being removed over “yellow” flags, he said.

Speaking about the abuser, Plunkett said he left “many years before I became commissioner, but it was a case of a push rather than a voluntary resignation”. The organisation’s standard of record keeping in the 2000s was very poor, he said.

“Stuff was thrown in a skip at one point to make space.”

Plunkett resigned as commissioner in 2013.

“I couldn’t get change fast enough, I ran into resistance from some longer-standing members. We’re talking about people in their 70s and 80s, who have been in the organisation since the 1940s and 1950s. They didn’t really see there should be a change,” he said.

He was replaced by the current commissioner John Hughes, who is a senior civil servant in the Department of Business. In the years after the abuser resigned, efforts were made to conceal his past association with the organisation.

In 2003, St John Ambulance produced a booklet celebrating its centenary. In the publication the abuser has been airbrushed out of a picture, with an empty black space left where he had been seated.

Breakdown

Finnegan was homeless for about four years before securing a place in supported housing. He began working for Fr Peter McVerry and managed to get a bedsit on the South Circular Road in Dublin.

He credits Salvation Army worker Howard Russell with helping him get off the streets. The pair would cross paths again when Russell returned to London after his Dublin posting.

Finnegan moved to London while in his early 20s, but continued to battle with “constant flashbacks” to being abused. In 2009, he had a mental breakdown.

“I ended up being detained under the mental health Act after getting into a four hour standoff with the police. I climbed a bridge in London and shut down the transport network,” he said.

It was Russell who got a call from the Metropolitan Police at 5am asking if he could come talk Finnegan down, as he was threatening to kill himself. Officers from the Met feared Finnegan had a gun and several marksmen had their sights trained on him during the standoff.

Russell approached his friend and said: “Mickey before we start, do you have a gun, mate?” It was not a gun but a piece of metal, which Finnegan placed on the ground before eventually being talked down.

For a further six years he would navigate mental health services in England, but a combination of the “right medication, the right support, the right therapy” has since allowed him to deal with his past abuse.

He went on to work in mental health services for the NHS, and has now completed a year in Trinity College Dublin’s access programme and hopes to go on to study social work.

‘Line in the sand’

Martin Hoey (48) joined the Finglas division of St John Ambulance in 1986, when he was 14. As an adult member he moved to the Old Kilmainham division in the mid-1990s, and he alleges that in 1998, when he was 26, he was sexually assaulted on one occasion by the same senior figure as Finnegan.

At the time, Hoey was working some shifts with the man for a private ambulance company. On occasions when shifts would finish late and the pair had work or duties the following morning, he would stay over in the man’s home.

While lying on a bed one night, Hoey said the abuser asked if he knew “all the different ways of rousing an unconscious casualty”.

“He put his hand inside the underwear and put the hand, the finger in, and I just said ‘Stop this’,” at which point he stopped, Hoey said.

Martin Hoey alleges that in 1998, when he was 26, he was sexually assaulted on one occasion by the same senior figure as Mick Finnegan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Martin Hoey alleges that in 1998, when he was 26, he was sexually assaulted on one occasion by the same senior figure as Mick Finnegan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Two years later Hoey left the organisation.

“When I left the brigade in 2000 I cut ties . . . I really drew a line in the sand,” he said.

Hoey said he “hid” the incident away until 2013 when he saw a post from Finnegan on social media about his abuse.

“I said to Michael at the time: ‘You’re not the only one’,” he recalled.

In June 2015, Hoey made a complaint to Det Garda Shane Curtis at Sundrive Garda station over the alleged digital rape. On September 28th, 2015, Finnegan received an email from Det Curtis requesting permission to reopen his 2001 case, on foot of the second complaint.

‘I was like his shadow’

Paul Mulholland (43) came forward in June 2016 to make a criminal complaint against the former senior figure.

Mulholland joined the Old Kilmainham division shortly after he turned 15 in 1992. He now lives in Mullagh, Co Cavan, and has worked as a National Ambulance Service paramedic for 12 years.

The abuser would pick him up after school to take him to a first-aid course in the St John Ambulance’s head office on Tuesday nights. Before the course he would stay in the man’s home, often in his bedroom watching television.

Then on one occasion Mulholland said the abuser sat down beside him and showed him where to take a pulse, before touching his groin and penis.

“After this occasion he would try different reasons or excuses to touch me . . . This led from touching me to masturbation and oral stimulation over the coming months to years,” he said.

The abuse continued at the man’s home and while on duty with St John Ambulance.

“I was like his shadow . . . I never as an adolescent got to have a normal life, because he started to control my life,” he said.

The grooming progressed and he would more frequently stay in the man’s home until he was effectively living there from age 17 onwards.

“My childhood, my adolescent years, going out with your mates, going to nightclubs, pulling women, normal things, was gone for me,” Mulholland said.

Other senior volunteers “all knew I was living with him,” but failed to intervene, he said. He would continue to live with the man for much of his 20s, working full time assisting him with delivery work, leaving only after he met his wife.

The organisation “failed” to protect him as a child, he said, and if it had “every aspect of my life would have become different”.

“Trying to keep it silent for so long, the attempted suicide, it never would have happened,” he said.

Insufficient evidence

The abuser was twice interviewed after Hoey and Mulholland’s criminal complaints. Following an investigation gardaí sent files on the three cases to the DPP, which in July 2018 directed that no prosecution be taken as it did not feel there was sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Prosecutors had considered the three allegations separately “on the basis of the individual evidence available,” a senior prosecutor told Finnegan in a letter early last year.

In his case there was “no independent evidence of any type in relation to the incidents alleged” and when interviewed by gardaí the man “made no admissions”.

“Other persons may have alleged similar incidents occurred in similar circumstances, at different times and places, however this is not corroborative,” the letter stated.

“It is not sufficient if the evidence is likely to go no further than to show on the balance of probabilities that it was more likely than not that the suspect committed the offence, but does not go so far as to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

While the criminal investigation seemed to have reached a dead end, a separate inquiry was gathering pace.

On August 22nd, 2013, a social worker St John Ambulance had brought in to act as an external child protection officer made a referral to the HSE about Finnegan’s abuse allegations.

It was not until February 2018 that Tusla contacted Finnegan to investigate his allegation of abuse. Finnegan met a Tusla social worker on March 22nd, 2018, and Mulholland was interviewed in May of that year. As Hoey was an adult at the time of his alleged sexual assault, Tusla had no remit in his case.

The Tusla inquiry would determine on the balance of probability whether the allegations against the man were founded or unfounded.

Tusla cannot compel suspects to attend an interview, and the accused declined to meet the organisation on the advice of his solicitor. The agency has privately long complained that its lack of investigatory powers can often limit its ability to make findings against individuals.

Allegations upheld

In letters dated September 5th, 2019, Tusla informed Finnegan and Mulholland that its investigation had concluded their allegations of child sex abuse were founded. Lawyers for the abuser lodged an appeal, but on June 24th last Tusla wrote to the two men to inform them an independent appeals panel had upheld the initial decision.

Mulholland said when he heard the panel upheld the decision he “broke down and started crying”.

“I was very emotional that day,” he said.

More than 20 years after the abuse took place, Finnegan said for the first time he felt his perpetrator had been “held to account”.

Represented by Coleman Legal Partners, Finnegan, Mulholland and Hoey are now taking civil cases against both the abuser and St John Ambulance.

Finnegan’s case alleges St John Ambulance was negligent by failing to appropriately respond to information about the abuser, or ensure reasonable care and protection for youth members.

Mason Hayes and Curran, acting on behalf of St John Ambulance, has denied the claims, and denied the organisation has any liability for the alleged actions of the former senior member.

Following requests for comment, the abuser’s solicitor provided a letter to The Irish Times which did not respond to questions about the allegations.

A spokesman for St John Ambulance said it was “aware of historic allegations relating to a former volunteer” but could not comment due to the ongoing legal case.

The organisation said it was “fully committed to providing a safe environment and experience for all children,” and strictly adhered to a “robust child protection policy,” with “clear and comprehensive reporting procedures in place”.

St John Ambulance is run by volunteers at all levels, and funded by donations and income from events where it provides medical cover.

“The organisation operates a rigorous recruitment process that includes vetting, while all members are required to undertake child protection training and subscribe to a code of behaviour that prioritises the welfare of children at all times,” the spokesman said.

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), the Samaritans (116123 or jo@samaritans.org) and HSE counselling services (1800-235234)

If you wish to contact this reporter about The Irish Times investigation into St John Ambulance email jpower@irishtimes.com. All information is treated in confidence.