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MacKenna On Monday: Five Sentences Won’t Wash Away An Episode That Should Concern All Gaels

Last month, an envelope arrived at an address in Athenry.

It contained a mere two pages, the first of which had a black-and-white, student-union-style photocopied GAA logo in the top corner and nothing more than a name and location for delivery.

The second page lacked so much as that logo, didn’t contain a date, and didn’t even bother with a signature.

As apologies go after legal settlements, this was barely acceptable.

It read:

“The GAA acknowledges that at a Code of Behaviour hearing on 1 November 2017 that Robert Ruane was wrongly identified as having intimidated a juvenile. This allegation became public knowledge, including to members of St Marys (sic) GAA Club. This allegation is entirely false and defamatory of Robert Ruane and it is withdrawn unreservedly. The GAA apologise for any distress caused to Robert Ruane or his family and his many friends at St Marys (sic) GAA Club. The organisation has taken appropriate steps to redress the damage caused to him.”

And that was it.

Five sentences to wash away an episode that should cause concern to all of their vital volunteers.

As far as the association were concerned it was the beginning of the end, but there are those in the club left between bemused and furious. For them, this is merely the end of the beginning.

The notion of child welfare in GAA and in any and all sports is of course of the utmost importance. This isn’t to deflect from that. But such a seriousness can co-exist with a seriousness around mutterings and allegations aimed at adults in that sphere too.

A minor and his well-being is paramount and there must be eyes on any and all mentors, but it doesn’t mean adult reputations are there for torching. Indeed what we’ve learned from this episode is that some senior GAA officials appear to have little difficulty in sacrificing names of club officials and punishing the club’s children to avoid an examination of how inadequately they conducted child welfare hearings involving that club.

Two days after the All-Ireland final replay, you might have come here looking for a reaction. But no matter how much Dublin-Kerry meant, it’s still just a game. This is real life. It takes priority.

The story of Robert Ruane and former St Mary’s officials is a long and winding road.

It has reached a troubling destination.

* * *

On 6 May 2018, elements of what happened around the Athenry club were covered in the pages of the Sunday Independent.

Sources in Galway tell us they’ve little interest in bemoaning that article or journalist Paul Kimmage, for it’s how he got his information that perturbs them. What is also disturbing to them is how club volunteers were and are dragged through the mud by the GAA having done no wrong, and all by an association they are the cornerstone of.

With four cases being brought up around welfare issues, the one that tried to ruin Ruane’s name goes back to July of 2015.

It was then that a complaint by the parents of a 12-year-old was made to both the club and Gardaí. It alleged a coach had grabbed their son and shoved him into the dugout. There was a lack of evidence however and it went no further. That, they presumed, was the end of it, having investigated it and found no cause for concern. Yet, tethered to other issues, it was soon exhumed.

When another case made its way to Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl, the National Children’s Officer in the GAA, and having read up on it, he passed the file back to Galway who suggested that the club should try and solve it internally. That failed and come November 2017 a hearings committee arrived. It was chaired by Fearghal Gray, the Clare Children’s Officer, and he was assisted by Denis O’Boyle and Oliver Donagher and an observer, Michelle Harte.

There, the person who was alleged and cleared around the shoving incident brought in Ruane as a witness and he told them that nothing wrong had ever happened. The case was closed. Only it wasn’t.

Following the conclusion of the hearings, on 12 March 2018, a letter arrived at the club from that hearings committee. This letter also reached Kimmage and the Sunday Independent when it was supposed to be solely confidential to the club executive. Good journalism for sure, but this isn’t about that. A section read:

“The conduct of club members who approached and remonstrated in the hotel foyer with complainants or witnessed, some of whom were X years of age, was at the very least unnecessary and in poor taste and at worst could be seen as intimidatory.”

This stunned many in St Mary’s and the letter also made several other allegations of varying seriousness. They describe these as “vague and untrue”. They added that:

“The club was not a respondent in any case in relation to child welfare and was not advised of or even heard about the serious accusations of improper conduct now being made by the hearings committee. The club was afforded no opportunity to even discuss the allegations…”

It was at this point that St Mary’s had a solicitor send a letter to Fearghal Gray asking for the withdrawal of the allegations made around the claimed intimidation and, not for the first time, raising issues about how the hearings were conducted by the committee which had forced the club to ask Páraic Duffy to have them replaced.

With the details in his possession, on Friday 20 April, Kimmage spoke with St Mary’s chairperson Seán Keane. The club also say “it is more than a coincidence that the officers of the club were summoned later that same day to an urgent meeting with the county board chairman Pat Kearney and secretary John Hynes”. There they were told that the county board had been in touch with the GAA president John Horan, the director-general and the national children’s officer. The club was issued with five verbal instructions from that meeting and given until 9 am the next morning (21 April) to comply. The club asked for the demands in writing but were refused.

Among the demands, they tell us, was an insistence on the withdrawal of the solicitor’s letter sent to Gray.

By May 2, four days before the Sunday Independent article hit the shelves, another letter to the club stated that the Management Committee discussed matters “including adherence and knowledge of child safeguarding procedures” and they had decided without due process or application of their own rules and procedures to ban the club from hosting and children playing in Féile na nGael. The club were also informed that their juvenile players were to be banned from competitions until a Child Safeguarding Risk Assessment was carried out and the club was completely compliant.

“Banning over 300 young players from playing the games they love, hurling and football, for three glorious summer months was abuse,” the club officials involved say. “The only impact it had was the upset and hurt it caused the children seeing their schoolmates and friends playing and they could not. They had done nothing wrong.”

As it dragged on, come 31 May the club officers were summoned to Croke Park for a meeting with the National Child and Safeguarding Committee. Frances Stephenson chaired the session with seven other NCSC people present including ó Maoilmhichíl. When opening proceedings she stated that there would be no minutes taken and not to ask for them. She also gave the club officers “time to turn off any recording devices” they may have. It didn’t take long to find out why there would be such secrecy.

“The meeting descended into a disgraceful display of intimidation, accusations, bullying and abuse of the club officers present for over three hours,” another person who was present tells us.

It was here that Ó Maoilmhichíl also questioned the club officers as to the identity of the person “who had whispered in the ear of an 11-year-old-child” at the original hearing on 1 November 2017. The officers informed him that no such incident occurred.

The next day the club was given another letter – they say they can prove is inaccurate in its details – from the NCSC and that it must be posted on the club’s website. It contained, they add, 15 pages of lies. It repeated again a now-proven false allegation of the “intimidation of a young boy preparing to be a witness”. Refusing to publish that letter saw the club’s underage teams suspended for another eight weeks. On top of that, the NCSC instead sent the letter to club members in the post, including the accusations around this since-proven false intimidation. It saw the club secretary and chairman step down from their positions due to the stress and in the hope it would help speed up a resolution.

Given it was their claim, requests for details around who was alleged to have done this were made and finally, on 16 June, there was a breakthrough. The committee blamed Robert Ruane and, worse again, said that the child they claimed he had intimidated was the son of one of his closest friends. The NCSC chairperson Stephenson also replied to a query about whether this had been investigated with, “What do you think we have been at for the past six months?”

Club officers then contacted the named parent whose child was alleged to have been intimidated. This parent stated that he knew nothing about it and provided the club with a letter stating that he did not make any complaint about either the accused, Ruane, or that any other club member had intimidated his son. Michelle Harte, in an email to the club’s new secretary the next day, said it was a different child than the one claimed. That child was not even at the hearings.

And thus the club contacted Croke Park. “It was unbelievable that a committee representing a national organisation would state as a fact something as serious as this without first investigating it,” one source recalls.

Only then there was silence.

Although tellingly, having been shown up over a false claim, the only correspondence that arrived from Croke Park said the club was actually now compliant with all rules and regulations and their juvenile teams could return to playing.

Their demand to post the letter on the club’s website was dropped. It was over for them but not for Ruane.

It took over six months for a response to the evidence that Ruane had done absolutely nothing. It was then at a club meeting that GAA officials admitted he had done no wrong, and the club officers asked what they’d be telling Ruane himself.

“We don’t know,” came the reply.

By their AGM it was ruled that it couldn’t be dealt with as it was ongoing – even though it was only ongoing due to the GAA’s ignorance – and Ruane’s name continued to be sullied. Another month passed by before he went the legal route sending a solicitors letter asking for the allegation to be retracted. He waited and waited but still got no reply.

Six months on a statement of claim in a sworn affidavit was lodged with the court services. Within three days the GAA were eager to and did settle.

That envelope arrived to an address in Athenry. It contained a mere two pages. The apology received didn’t have so much as a signature or a date.

And this, after all, Ruane had been put through.

For the past couple of months, a group of former club officers have been trying to get answers and writing to the GAA and president John Horan. Among them are the following:

  • Were the National Child Safeguarding Committee hearings conducted fairly and properly, in accordance with the GAA’s Code of Best Practice and in the best interests of child welfare? Did any person, group or committee misuse the GAA’s Child Welfare procedures and if so for what purpose?
  • What action, if any, was taken to deal with GAA officials and people who deliberately misled the hearings in verbal and written submissions, providing false documents and evidence?
  • Was it a breach of the GAA’s Code of Best Practice that the same journalist, who has claimed to have tracked confidential child welfare hearings in Athenry, was accommodated and briefed by a senior GAA Child Welfare official? Was it a breach of the GAA’s Code of Best Practice that confidential documents containing false allegations and the names of innocent volunteers were provided to the journalist and published in an article in a Sunday newspaper?
  • Why did the National Child Safeguarding Committee post hundreds of letters, having been made aware that they contained false and defamatory allegations about innocent club volunteers, to all St Mary’s GAA Club members in June 2018? Why did the National Child Safeguarding Committee insist that a copy of this same letter be posted on the club’s website for one week, as a condition for the suspension of the children to be lifted?

They are also calling on John Horan and Croke Park officials to hold a full independent audit and investigation into what unfolded and how it was allowed to come to this.

They’ve received no answer as of yet.

“How could GAA President John Horan have sanctioned the punishment of children as young as six by suspending them from playing hurling and football games for three months,” says one key person in the club who asked to remain anonymous. “Then, sit idly by while the names and characters of outstanding volunteer club officials were destroyed.”

As an example, one member of the club recently got talking to an official from another club at a match when Ruane’s name the issue came up. “Oh yeah, he’s the guy that bullied the child,” they said.

Flames aren’t the deadliest part of the fire.

Instead, it’s the heat.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.