Where is George Gibney? - Mark Horgan on his quest to find out
Second Captains producer has spent two and a half years chasing down the former coach
Mark Horgan: “You are approaching people and asking them to relive things they may have tried for years to forget.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“The greatest illusion that was perpetrated in sport ever. There was nothing about that man that was real.” – Gary O’Toole on his former coach George Gibney.
Why this man, why this story, why now? I was 13 years old and running around in my first year of secondary school when the story of George Gibney was published in 1994. I had no idea then who Gibney was or what he had done. Looking back now, I was around the same age as the youngsters Gibney was sexually abusing through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. At the time I was unaware of what had happened. It would take more than 25 years before I came to fully understand.
What initially triggered my interest were pieces we covered on The Second Captains podcast on Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics coach, and the former football coach Barry Bennell in the UK. When those stories broke, and the abusers were convicted, it felt like a turning point for survivors of sexual abuse in sport. The #MeToo movement helped bring worldwide attention to the young gymnasts taking turns to face down their abuser in court. The greying former footballers stood together and told the TV cameras outside Liverpool Crown Court that they had finally “taken back their voice”. After years of anguish, it was their time.
That was early 2018. As I followed those cases, I was reminded of a story we had covered briefly more than 10 years earlier on a former Irish Olympic swimming coach. How I remembered the story of George Gibney in my head was totally different to what had actually happened. I thought Gibney had been convicted. I had forgotten there were four other major figures in Irish swimming who were also child sex abusers. At the same time. He vanished to the other side of the world. He never served any time. He never even faced a trial. His victims never got that day in court.
So in February 2018, we released a 40-minute podcast called The George Gibney Case: 25 Years On. The reaction was huge and, judging by our listeners, we weren’t the only ones to have forgotten what had actually happened. But that podcast was just an introduction to the story and as I dug a little deeper, it became clear there was a hell of a lot more to discover. There were questions marks over how he obtained his US visa. Who were Gibney’s connections in international swimming? Who were his political and religious links? Who helped him on his journey to the United States? Is he working? Where is he now?
In that initial podcast, we heard the story of one particular survivor of Gibney’s. She was an incredible swimming talent who had the world at her feet but who was vulnerable and needed support. Instead, the sexual abuse she suffered had a devastating effect on her life and continues to hurt her today. The manipulation of young athletes on the cusp of breakthroughs and untouchable coaches holding positions of power became recurring themes in both the testimonies of Gibney’s survivors and the evidence from survivors in the 2018 Nassar case. It became increasingly clear to me that the story of George Gibney went way beyond Ireland and way beyond one short broadcast.
“We’ve seen it in the papers recently, you’ve been offered all these marvellous jobs all over the place particularly in Germany. You’re not going to leave your Irish babies are you?” – Bibi Baskin to George Gibney – Bibi television show, October 1989.
My colleagues and I at Second Captains had worked together in radio for almost a decade before we made the move into podcasting. I think we’re really lucky to have switched over just as the medium exploded internationally. The opportunity to develop stories like the Gibney case through podcasts is a really new phenomenon. In a podcast series you can go deep on the subject, you can produce it without a gigantic budget or large staff and, best of all, with the help of a big host broadcaster, you can take it to an international audience – just look at how the West Cork podcast shone a worldwide spotlight to the Sophie Tuscan du Plantier case.
Along with that, there was this vast media archive of interviews with Gibney. People may have forgotten but he was famous and popular in Ireland, particularly in the 1980s and was never shy of courting publicity. He was a sports analyst and contributor to educational swimming shows. He was featured constantly in the national press. He was interviewed on primetime TV chat shows. He was seen as our revolutionary swimming coach, the man who gave us Gary O’Toole. You couldn’t shut him up. That was, until the day he decided he’d never speak publicly again.
The footage of him teaching kids how to swim is the most haunting. I felt from listening to it – hearing him on the bank of the swimming pool giving instructions, hearing the sounds of that man’s voice and the sounds of the water and the echo of kids voices – that this story would be most impactful in audio (and podcast) form.
So we did up a treatment, a broad chapter outline of what we were looking for, gathered snippets of audio that we thought were powerful, and discussed the prospect of a series with some journalists who had worked tirelessly on the Gibney story in the past; Johnny Watterson of this paper who bravely broke the story for The Sunday Tribune in 1994 despite a Supreme Court decision to halt the Gibney case, and Justine McCarthy, author of the brilliant Deep Deception: Ireland’s Swimming Scandals. Both were incredibly supportive and encouraging and despite years of covering the story, immediately offered their help in any way they could.
Given that Gibney had so many connections with the US, we initially felt the story would work better via an American broadcaster. However, a chance meeting in Dublin with Dylan Haskins, the commissioning executive for podcasts with BBC Sounds, set the project on another course. I pitched the idea informally to him and he was fascinated.
Gibney had strong connections in the UK swimming scene and had spent time coaching children in Edinburgh even after the truth of his abuse in Ireland became public. He had even appeared on BBC broadcasts. Before long, I was travelling to London to meet the BBC commissioning editor for podcasts, Jason Phipps, and from that day we had their full support and backing. Having experienced, multi-award winning filmmakers on board like Ciarán Cassidy and Maria Horgan as producers definitely helped. Now we just had to make the thing.
“I often wonder what was I going to be like. The day he touched me did he squeeze and kill whatever I was going to be?” – Ber Carley, former swimmer and survivor of George Gibney
There have been many features and reports in prominent papers like The Irish Times in the years since Gibney left Ireland. Prime Time did a programme years ago. Liveline has covered abuse in swimming and the story of Gibney on a number of occasions now. But the way media works, it stays in the public’s consciousness for a couple of days and then understandably it goes. People forget, just like I did.
I wanted to produce something which gave survivors a lot of time to tell their stories in depth – a platform where they could tell me every aspect of their story if they so wished. There would be no cameras, no crews, just me and my mic. Our aim was to get the truth out there to a bigger audience than ever before.
During the production, I think the most difficult thing was dealing with one recurring question in my head. No matter how worthwhile I thought the story might be, or how unjust I felt the outcome was for the survivors, how do I know I won’t hurt them by bringing it all up again? You are approaching people and asking them to relive things they may have tried for years to forget. Is it the right thing to do?
The real positive was getting to know the survivors and, in doing so, understanding some of the nuances involved in their journeys. I think I was guilty of believing one perception of what it means to be a ‘victim’ of child sexual abuse. They’re individuals with their own experiences and their own paths and their own beliefs. Their stories are of recovery, of strength, of fight and of getting on with their lives. They’re powerhouses. They’re survivors.
There were times like the end of last year when Cass and I weren’t sure how good this was going to be. We almost had to rip up where we were and restart again because the episodes weren’t sounding like we wanted them to sound. We had so much material that we were getting drowned by it. But now with just days to go before the release of episode one, I feel proud of what we’ve put together.
Over the past two and a half years we’ve travelled across the US, tracked down voices who had previously stayed silent, and discovered new information on Gibney’s past and his path. We’ve also come to understand the reality that there are more survivors of George Gibney’s abuse out there. I hope they realise that our society today is a kinder and more believing place than it was in 1994. As Gary Cliffe told survivors of Barry Bennell outside Liverpool Crown Court – “The hurt is not yours to carry, it is his”.
The 10 weekly episodes of ‘Where is George Gibney?’ begin on Thursday, August 27th and are available on BBC Sounds. If you have any information that you would like to share confidentially with the producers, email firstname.lastname@example.org