herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

No effort spared to root out child abusers in sport

The cases of former Irish swimming coach George Gibney is a warning to all sporting organisations on their responsibilities to children.
The cases of former Irish swimming coach George Gibney is a warning to all sporting organisations on their responsibilities to children.

Back in the 80s, I was invited to spend a week in America with some of Ireland's best young swimming talent at a training camp arranged by George Gibney

Now, George Gibney is a name dripping with disgrace but back then, he was a star of Irish sport, a smart lad with a twinkle in his eye, a knack for self-promotion and a BMW under his backside.

Remember, this was the 80s and in a sport which didn't even have a single 50m pool and lived hand to mouth, such an open display of financial success was odd.

But Gibney had a way of generating support, financial and indeed media, for his drive to lift Irish swimming out of mildewed mediocrity.

I was a swimmer, back in the day. Trained with the Cummins and Clorertys and Haltons in St Vincents in Glasnevin, awed by the displacement of water John Cummins made in a 25m pool when he cut loose but eventually overpowered by the training regimen.

English soccer coach Barry Bennell. Pic: PA
English soccer coach Barry Bennell. Pic: PA

Slog

Walking across the GAA pitches towards another two-hour slog in the pool one day, I heard a huge roar go up from nearby Dalymount Park, took a long, hard look at the swimming pool building and turned left for the handball alleys and out onto the main road towards Binns Bridge.

That was the day Liam Brady made his debut, Ireland beat Russia 3-0 and Don Givens scored three. I lost my towel and togs in the melee after the first. I never found them again.

But I maintained an interest and so, was ripe for Gibney to recruit as a media friend which was part of the reason I was invited to join the camp in the US.

It was a lush trip and it was clear that Gibney was very well connected. He wanted me to reflect this back in Ireland.

The reason for this tale is to give some context to the horror story now unfolding in England.

I now know that some of the events which were to form the narrative of Gibney's predatory pursuit of children, male and female, occurred while I was asleep a few rooms away in America and I had no idea.

I interviewed him dozens of times, was in his company as often and never once suspected that he was anything but a slightly flash, slightly oily but hugely talented swimming coach and advocate for the sport.

Derry O'Rourke was part of my beat and Ger Doyle. Frank McCann too and they turned out to be bad, bad people.

And I never knew.

Hindsight allows me to remember certain things, certain mannerisms which maybe should have given me a hint but it never dawned on me that these men were serial child abusers. Predators like Gibney and Barry Bennell work in full view, almost daring the world to look harder.

Shortly after my trip to America, an Irish swimmer broke down and told a story about Gibney which left me and a colleague slack-jawed.

It was a heartrending revelation which carried the absolute ring of truth and in the days that followed, many oddities experienced in America suddenly made sense.

In the years that followed, brave victims stepped forward and told their story. Gibney was accused, hired some lawyers and slipped away.

He has never been brought to book and is at large somewhere in the world, tracked by faithful watchers to swimming clubs in Scotland and America.

In England at the moment, they are at the slack-jawed stage and only beginning to grasp the enormity of Bennell's crimes. He carved a trail of destruction across England and particularly at Crewe where he finally ran out of rope.

Those who owned and ran the club are in the crosshairs because they allowed this piece of pond scum to work on at the club even though serious questions were raised about him, particularly by a 13 year-old boy who alleged rape while he was with Bennell in Florida.

Contact

There will be many who were in daily contact with him and had no idea but there were some who knew and didn't act. There almost always is.

The scale of his crime expands with every day. This man started working as a coach when he was sixteen. Thousands of children went through his care.

Most poignantly, Gary Speed's father revealed that his son was one of Bennell's favourites and although he shrugged off suggestions that this may have had a role to play in the Welshman's suicide, it is hard not to make the link.

The lesson here is that sports associations, clubs, teams and coaches all must be extra-vigilant.

The FAI, the IRFU, the GAA, all of them, from top to bottom, must be ferocious in their approach to weeding out abusers and sexual predators.

As a matter of certainty, they are out there among us right now, hiding in full view.

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