We must bite the bullet on abuse

 

One night, with two vodka bottles on the table, I told my friend a happy story about the time when I was a kid and our team was hurling on the public park in Whitehall. One of our number suffered a head wound, and Liam Brady, who happened to be watching the match, drove him to hospital. Imagine, Liam Brady drove Skulls to hospital. We begrudged Skulls every moment.

It was the first time I can remember anyone getting hurt at sport, and because of Brady's involvement it all seemed inescapably glamorous.

I thought back then that the good hurlers and footballers were bulletproof, living bulletproof lives in their bulletproof worlds.

My friend had a different first-injury story. A different team training on a different park. Macker rolling on the ground injured, holding the back of his thigh. Roaring. The sole mentor present bending over him as everyone watched in boyish fascination.

"Jaysus Macker, he's got his hand inside your cacks." The shout came sharp with the realisation that Macker was sobbing his heart out. The ribaldry just died. The hand was withdrawn and everyone walked away and nothing was ever said.

There and then, years and years later with vodka on the table, Macker's life made sense. He'd fractured his premature marriage and sunk to a sour, barfly life somewhere in the Bronx. Everyone who knew him called him a waster. That was before we knew about victims.

Sport gets away from us sometimes, and when it does it stops being a gift. The past months seem filled with tales of child abuse. Children of the former East Germany drugged and altered by their coaches. Kids in the pools of Dublin having their lives destroyed.

I thought of Macker and that sad line from the dark chapter of his life last year when I spent three days in Toronto. I visited Maple Leaf Gardens, Canada's shrine to ice hockey, and found a city and a sport suddenly out of love with that beautiful arena.

A group of paedophiles had used the thrill of Maple Leaf Gardens and the lure of sport to buy the trust of kids playing on junior teams. The abuse had persisted for years. The victims, filled with self-loathing and torment, stayed quiet until a brave man called Martin Kruze could bear it no longer. Kruze blew the whistle.

Last October, the last surviving member of the abuse ring was sentenced in a Toronto court. Kruze had encouraged other victims to tell their stories. His reward was scant. There were scenes of anguish when the sentence on Gordon Stuckless was read out. For the abuse of 26 boys over a period of 19 years Stuckless received two years in jail and chemical castration.

Three days later, Martin Kruze threw himself to his death from a viaduct bridge in Toronto.

To have so much raw pain splashed across its consciousness was a bitter surprise to the city. Toronto has been grappling with this problem for so long. Seventeen years ago, they set up the Metro Toronto Special Committee on Child Abuse in the hope that they might eliminate the problem within two years. Now child abuse had stained ice hockey.

When the Maple Leaf Gardens story broke it was around the same time as a famous National Hockey League pro, Sheldon Kennedy, something of a waster by prior reputation, put together his life and sued his old coach (a former Hockey Man of the Year) for years of abuse.

Both cases were distinguished by the attendant furore concerning the need of the victims and the shocked public and the voracious media to find out who knew. Kennedy subpoenaed a best friend, a lifelong companion, who remembered all the games and all the trips but couldn't remember anything like abuse. The coach pleaded guilty and there was no doubt about the authenticity of the charges. How could Sheldon Kennedy's friend not have remembered his torment? The secrets run that deep and dark.

In their pragmatic way, Canadians used the pain of both cases as an illustration of the cunning of paedophiles. According to the Metro Toronto Special Committee on Child Abuse, a policy and response agency, it is not unusual for the perpetrators to survive undetected for so long, for those around them to be reluctant to believe allegations or raise accusations.

Paedophilia is not a story for the sports pages, yet sport in Canada is learning the things that sport in Ireland will learn. Sport, with its youth and its trips and its opportunity for building relationships between coaches and participants, is a fine feeding ground for those few sick minds who prey on kids.

Programmes like hockey's "Players First" scheme are being implemented to educate kids, to set up rules and guidelines for reporting and for the daily interaction between kids and coaches. Screening of those who are involved in coaching and youth groups is becoming standard. Screening, police checks, reference checks, cross-checks with other clubs, organisations and agencies are becoming standard.

The solution, if there is one at all, lies in education and in the denial of opportunity.

Crucially, in Canada, parents are being encouraged to view sport less as a babysitting service and more as something with which they need to be positively involved. It was parents who raised the alarm bells in the case of Derry O'Rourke, and the lesson from that case and from Canada is that, as parents, we all need to be more integrally involved in our children's sporting life. Sport is practically the only area where we hand our children over without question, assuming that we are doing them a favour.

The Government reaction to the scandals which have poisoned swimming has been small and unworthy. The tight world of Irish swimming is buzzing with accusation and writs. There are too many victims and too many rumours and too much distrust for a judicial inquiry not to have been the most fitting response.

The regrettably tardy response of officials who, like most of us, were afraid of lawyers and generally more concerned with galas and fundraisers and petty politics provides a salutary lesson.

For all of us who would throw our stones in fits of self-righteous anger, the lessons should be carefully absorbed. No amount of extra trouble in screening coaches and enforcing guidelines and watching our kids is too much to avoid the grim spectacle of wrecked lives.

I think of all the people who trained and coached me through my talent-free youth, dear heroic men who drove the cars and brought the gear and shared their love of sport. Their like are active in every town and suburb in the country.

I hope their love of sport survives any wounds they might feel if intrusive questions are asked at the start of some season in the future. None of us can afford the complacency of thinking we live in a bulletproof world.