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What is being done to stop another George Gibney in Irish sport?

Dr Una May of Sport Ireland and Swim Ireland’s Kate Hills on child protection in Irish sport.

Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney pictured in 1988.
Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney pictured in 1988.

THERE IS SIMPLY nothing more important in sport than child protection.

Competing should be fun first and foremost, but if kids do not feel the environment they are participating in is safe, the opposite is the case. 

There have been countless high-profile examples over the years involving horrific abuse, whether it be physical, psychological, or sexual, involving minors.

There was the Larry Nassar case in US gymnastics, the Barry Bennell scandal in British football and the excellent ‘Where is George Gibney?’ podcast by Second Captains has recently provided a timely reminder that Irish sport is not immune from such controversies.

But what is being done to try to ensure such cases are consigned to the past?

The Children First Act, which was first published in 2015 and can be read in full here, is a key document when it comes to child protection in sport and has been the main driver of any recent changes in policy.

Per the official website of Tusla: “Children First relates to the recognition of child abuse and neglect, the reporting of same to Tusla – Child and Family Agency, and the best practice which organisations should adhere to to keep children safe while availing of their services.” 

Sport Ireland are responsible for ensuring every sporting governing body in the country is compliant with the terms of the Children First Act.

All the guidelines and codes of practice must be followed, and should a national governing body neglect this duty, there are serious consequences.

In order to receive funding, for instance, a sporting body must demonstrate they are fully in line with all the statutory requirements.

To assist with this process, Sport Ireland provide governing bodies with all the tools and guidance to enact the necessary measures.

A 70-page document (which can be read in full here) entitled ‘Safeguarding Guidance for Children and Young People in Sport’ also comprehensively outlines the type of practices that must be adhered to.

It provides them with guidance on how they should carry out the risk assessment they’re obliged to develop,” Director of Participation and Ethics at Sport Ireland, Doctor Una May, tells The42. “They have to develop a child safeguarding statement and all kinds of policies and procedures around complaints and all that sort of stuff.”

May says that over 10,000 people attended safeguarding workshops last year.

One or two of the larger NGBs do their own safeguarding training, but generally, it is provided by Local Sports Partnerships, 29 of which exist across Ireland. They are described on Sport Ireland’s website as organisations that “undertake a wide range of actions with the aim of increasing sport and physical activity participation levels in their local communities”.

There are three different levels of safeguarding training, designed for coaches, club and national children’s officers, and a designated liaison person

All these individuals are brought together a few times a year by Sport Ireland to discuss key issues, such as changes in legislation.

“We’re involved, not just at a national level, but also at a European level,” explains May. “So we are represented on a project on child safeguarding in sport. And we were invited to provide someone as an expert consultant given that we are demonstrated to be one of the leading countries in the area of safeguarding and children.”

The guidance and documentation for national children’s officers (every sport in Ireland is obliged to have one) is frequently being updated, while they often must undergo very specific training. For instance, one of their meetings this year focused on the issue of active consent (more info on which can be found here).

There are also awareness campaigns involving Sport Ireland, such as Parents in Sport Week, which occurs annually and took place last week (more info here).

“We also provide an app that people can download, which provides all the basic information,” explains May. “It’s not exactly a tracking device, but it’s a mechanism that lets the parent know that their child is leaving the sports venue, so that the parent knows when they’ll be back and stuff like that.”

Sport Ireland also provides vetting services for the governing bodies, as well as asking the relevant people to undergo a safeguarding refresher online every couple of years in accordance with the latest changes to legislation.

“This year, we developed a version of our main safeguarding awareness to be online. It’s not E-Learning as such, it’s through Zoom, but it’s designed to be able to cater for the current situation where face-to-face training became very difficult.”

Suffice to say, there have been many developments in the area of safeguarding in Irish sport, in conjunction with societal changes — the onset of social media being one notable example — since the organisation’s first code of ethics was developed nearly 20 years ago.

“It’s not just in terms of communication with children and young people, but more what to watch out for, what children and young people might be getting involved with on social media,” says May.

May adds that the most recent safeguarding document, last updated in 2019, “has become much stronger and much more robust system I think”.

Some of the policies, such as Garda vetting, can be annoying for some of the people involved.

“Even if you’ve been vetted by one sport and you want to be involved in another, you have to be vetted again. People find that frustrating, but that’s just the comprehension of the system and how it works and the importance in maintaining the most up-to-date possible records.

“The vetting isn’t foolproof. It’s not a catch all. There will be people who could fall through the net, but what we have to do is take every step we can to protect children and young people, but be realistic that it’s not going to ensure that they are 100% safe.

“The parents [should not] just drop their children off in training and assume that someone’s going to take responsibility for their children. [They should] remain responsible, have sensible conversations with their children so that their children can feel safe to talk to them about issues.”

ky-rachael-denhollander Former US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar pictured at his trial last year. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

One of the many people in Irish sport operating in the area of child protection is Kate Hills, Head of Safeguarding, Ethics and Youth with Swim Ireland.

She began working with the organisation as the national children’s officer in 2006, initially on a part-time basis, though it quickly developed into a full-time role.

“I think we were only the second sport to employ a full-time national children’s officer,” says Hills. “So I’ve seen quite a lot of changes, developments, enhancements and all the pieces of legislation around safeguarding young people that have come through the door of the Republic of Ireland.

“But we’re a 32-county national governing body, which means that we not only need to be cognisant of Republic of Ireland legislation, but we also need to be aware of Northern Irish legislation.”

Hill’s role involves making sure that young people’s views are represented “at each level of our organisation”.

She adds: “I’m a resource for everybody in the organisation with regard to safeguarding matters. So I have a direct link with our clubs through the club children’s officer and a direct link through the regional children’s officer. They have free reign to come to me to ask questions, or help deal with issues, as well as being open to any member that wants me to pick up the phone and ask me a question.”

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Hills is a mandated person for Swim Ireland, as well as being their national designated liaison person, another role that is required by Children First.

She cites The National Vetting Bureau Act, which originated in 2012 and was updated in 2016, as one of the key pieces of legislation introduced since she has been involved.

“When I first started in Swim Ireland, things that became required by law, either through the Children First Act or through the Vetting Act, we as a national governing body were already implementing,” Hills says.

We started vetting individuals in 2007. It wasn’t a legal requirement until 2016.”

Safeguarding training is another example of something that only became a legal requirement with the introduction of the 2015 Children First Act, but which Swim Ireland say they have been implementing since long before then.

So what exactly inspired all of these rules and regulations in the first place? The obvious assumption would the case of Gibney, the former Ireland Olympic swimming coach accused of sexual and psychological abuse of children over a period of at least 25 years, who left the country after a legal case against him collapsed in 1993. But Hills says there was no one particular scandal that prompted significant change.

“People recognised the gaps that there were where children and young people were involved in any activity that wasn’t regulated and didn’t have an answerable governing body.

“We, as Swim Ireland, don’t have any jurisdiction over facilities for instance. We have jurisdiction over our clubs and our associate members who would be coaches and teachers who are affiliated to us.

“So our policies, even as far back as 2006, recognised some of the gaps and the learnings, not just from the abuse cases that happened within swimming, but the abuse cases that happened externally to that. I’m thinking back to things like the Fearns Report. Even as far back as the West of Ireland case. All of those statutory reports would have contributed to a public perception of what ultimately creates a safe environment for young people.”

Hills says that the organisation’s current complaint and disciplinary procedure is “very robust”.

“My expertise is in spotting or understanding the implications for that young person in their complaint. We also would be extremely lenient on the time limit that is around a complaint.

“Whether it be poor practice or at the other end, an experience of abuse that they’ve suffered, young people don’t tend to want to talk about that immediately. They’ll seek somebody out that they trust and that may well be a friend, their coach, a parent or the club’s children’s officer.

“And if that comes up to us, it’s taken as absolute, so that the policy then kicks in and we have really robust reporting policies, what to do if the allegation is made within the organisation, what to do if the allegation is made outside of the organisation and our duty is to ensure that the appropriate statutory authorities are informed and make an assessment on whether the child is in immediate danger, or whether it’s an ongoing matter.

“So the situation or the process now aims to put the children first, and then everything follows after that.”

barry-bennell-court-case Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of former football coach Barry Bennell appearing at Liverpool Crown Court in February 2018, where he was sentenced for hundreds of historical sexual assaults committed on young boys in his care. Source: PA

Any allegation of abuse results in the statutory authorities being informed, as well as an immediate suspension for the accused person, pending the outcome of an investigation, provided it is an individual the organisation has jurisdiction over.

“If the allegation is a case of poor practice, I make an assessment as to the seriousness of it,” Hills adds.

“Across the spectrum, young people will raise things that make them unhappy. It could be ‘I don’t like the colour of our kit’ to ‘actually, I’m not sure I feel very comfortable around this person’.

“They are a group of people who have much to say. Across society, we need to listen to our young people. It’s one of the things that is one of our priorities within Swim Ireland — it’s about listening to young people and making sure that they have a voice and they’re heard.”

One of the key findings from the recent US gymnastics abuse scandal was that it occurred amid an environment where there were ample opportunities for an adult to be alone in a room with a child.

“Many gyms in the past had no policy that disallowed a coach from being alone in a room with an underage athlete,” Jon Shenk, co-director of the acclaimed ‘Athlete A’ documentary, told The42 earlier this year.

“And that’s started to change. We’re starting to see new rules where coaches and athletes cannot be alone in a room.”

This policy also exists in Irish swimming, says Hills.

We would have had it in place when I came into post and it developed, it used to be called a ‘parent-on-duty policy’. It’s now referred to as a ‘person-on-duty policy’. No one is allowed to train or educate any group involving young people where there is not an additional person present. That person cannot be a coach or somebody else who is involved in the training. It has to be a separate independent person.

“We don’t give anybody direct, unsupervised access to children. We’re very clear on that. And even to the extent that before the lockdown, one of the things we did as an organisation was we carried out safeguarding audits. That would involve turning up at clubs during a training session, that could be at 5am-7am in the morning, or 4pm-8pm, to ensure that they were actually implementing our safeguarding measures.

“One of our safeguarding measures was to make sure that they had a person on duty. If the person on duty does not turn up, the club is bound to cancel the training session. It’s a risk first and foremost to young people, but it’s also a risk to those people who are involved in training the group of young people.”

“No adult should be left alone with a child,” agrees May. “That’s been fundamental in our procedures for a long time. 

“If an adult needs to discuss something with a young person, they need to be taken aside by all means, but they should still be in view of others.”

May also says Sport Ireland have learned from the high-profile controversies of the past.

“There’s no question about it. While our safeguarding policies would have been designed at a time where clearly the likes of the situation with George Gibney, that kind of serious sexual abuse in sport, was the original base of our code of ethics in more recent times. We’re very conscious of the issues around athlete welfare and those sort of issues

“We’re putting athlete welfare at the forefront of all our work in high performance and as well as in young people’s grassroots sport and participation. So from that point of view, we’re ensuring that we’re paying attention to what’s happening across the world.”

Hills concludes: “I would advise anybody, no matter what walk of life they’re in, if they have got an issue or a concern about themselves, about something that’s happened to them, or about something that is happening to a young person currently, to speak to somebody they trust. I would hope that that person they speak to knows what to do with that information, how to help them, because it’s not about keeping that information secret, it’s about taking that information to somebody that can help make that issue or abuse stop.”

“It’s a difficult, difficult area,” adds May. “I think everyone hopes to God that we never face another issue like the swimming one [with Gibney]. From my point of view, the key to this is that children and young people feel safe to tell someone if something happens.

“I guess the culture in the country has evolved in more recent times. People have seen that it is possible that people they would look up to could actually be doing bad things and people that have a high status in society aren’t immune from badness as well. It’s frustrating and depressing that people like that exist, but what’s important for us is to provide all the supports we can to help ensure that those kind of people don’t make their way into children’s lives. And the reality is, there will always be people like that. There will always be challenges around keeping our children safe and it’s in all walks of life.

“But more so in sport than in any walk of life, we have to always be on the ball and constantly try to keep up to date with any potential risks that we expose our children to.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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