Swimming against the tide

Four of Ireland's most senior officials in swimming have been convicted of crimes against children in the last few years, yet the state has done little to help the victims of this abuse or deal with the incidence of sex crime in Ireland. By Justine McCarthy


The voice on the recorded phone message in the newsroom sounded informal, tending towards friendliness. It did not say to whom it belonged but it was the voice of a man, still young despite its fatigued modulation. The message it left was succinct. It said that there had been conjecture in the media about where Derry O'Rourke was going to live after his release from prison and that his victims were worried. “I want to give you a little bit of... er... knowledge,” it said. “He will not be going back to live with his family. There are no circumstances in which that will happen.”

By the time the voice left the phone message, one of the women who had been repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child swimmer by Derry O'Rourke and, by chance, had come to reside in the same village as his family while he was incarcerated, had gone to Spain. Whisked away to the carefree costa by her alarmed mother as soon as the news of O'Rourke's imminent release broke. The young woman had been buying bridesmaid dresses in a Dublin city centre store for her summer wedding when she got word on her mobile phone. She had pressed the end-call button and stood rooted in the shop, surrounded by yards upon yards of foaming fairytale flounces, tears streaming down her face.

In a village some distance from her's, another young woman held a newspaper in one hand and dialled a phone number with the other. The headline on the front of the paper announced ‘Derry O'Rourke to be Released on Friday'. With a photograph of her mother smiling at her from a shelf in the kitchen, she spoke into the phone and made an appointment with her psychiatrist to discuss how she was going to cope with O'Rourke's freedom. It was coming up to the sixth anniversary of her mother's death by suicide. The 58-year-old mother of five was driven to despair at what O'Rourke had done to her only daughter.

In a remote area of another county, the sound of a woman in her 30s driving away from her home sundered the pastoral peace. She drove to her GP's surgery and confided in him, for the first time, that she had been sexually abused as a child swimmer by O'Rourke.

The human devastation caused by Derry O'Rourke can never be fully measured. There have been suicides, attempted suicides, family estrangement, marriage failure, long-term psychiatric care for alcoholism and depression, financial problems and emigration. Most of the women who testified in the three separate sets of court proceedings that made O'Rourke the country's most notorious paedophile believe that there are many more victims who have never broken their silence. Many, perhaps, who have never managed to acknowledge it in their own heads and hearts.

In addition, there have been the indirect victims – parents, brothers and sisters, concerned coaches and officials and those who resisted threats and calumny in their fight to expose the crimes, even while they were going on. Among those who indirectly suffered the consequences of his child-abusing spree were the wife, six children and several grand-children of the former national and Olympics swimming coach. One of them may possibly have been the owner of the voice recorded in the phone message.

Mother state, however, has done virtually nothing to try to ameliorate all that enduring and widespread suffering. The victims, who had to summon heroic strength of character to give evidence against him in court, were dispassionately regarded by the system solely as witnesses and were not accorded the courtesy of being officially notified that he was being released from prison. Nor have they been told where he is living, even though the fear of suddenly encountering him in their neighbourhood has caused some of them serious psychological relapses. They have received no financial or medical assistance from the state and the civil legal actions being pursued by more than a dozen of them have been frozen in a legal limbo for the past decade, side-lined by a wrangle over insurance liability and who will have to pay the inevitable awards for damages.

O'Rourke was given more than 100 years' prison time but his sentences ran concurrently.  He served nine years, bizarrely benefiting from remission for “good behaviour” despite refusing therapy for his paedophilia while in jail. (Only seven of the 230 convicted sex offenders in Irish jails are on a therapy programme designed to prevent re-offending). In many ways, his life has moved on while his victims are stuck in a time warp.
The state's complacency about the disproportionate incidence of child sexual abuse in the sport of swimming is deeply disturbing.  That four of its most senior officials have been convicted of crimes against children (a fifth official has been under garda investigation for the last three years) has barely warranted a passing mention in the Dáil.

Frank McCann, the former president of the Leinster branch of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association (now Swim Ireland) is serving two concurrent life sentences for murdering his wife, Esther, and their foster daughter, Jessica, in an arson attack on their family home in Rathfarnham. McCann murdered them in the vain hope of keeping it a secret that he had fathered a child, who was subsequently put up for adoption, by an underage swimmer. Since entering Arbour Hill prison in 1996, he has completed a PhD in computer sciences. “He shows no remorse for what he did,” according to a source. His first parole application was refused last summer.

Fr Ronald Bennett, a former sports master and spiritual director at Gormanston College, was convicted last year of sexually abusing schoolboys and had his sentence increased by the Court of Criminal Appeal in March. He was a leading light in national junior swimming, having co-founded the Irish Schoolboys Swimming Association and variously served as its treasurer, secretary and president. Bennet wore a second hat allowing him liberal access to children: that of international secretary of FISCE, a Roman Catholic-run international games tournament for children.

Most infamous of all the swimming officials was George Gibney. Gregarious and well-connected through Trojan Swimming Club, which he founded in south Dublin, he preceded O'Rourke as national and Olympic swimming coach and (as did O'Rourke) frequently ran residential training camps for children in Gormanston, at Ronald Bennett's invitation. In a failed high court judicial review of his prosecution on seven charges of rape, he claimed that, because some of the alleged offences had happened in the late 1960s, he could not defend himself adequately. He appealed to the Supreme Court, and won. The prosecution was formally discontinued in 1996 and Gibney left Ireland.  He went first to Scotland but fled when it was reported that he was coaching child swimmers at an Edinburgh club. Since then, he has pitched up in various parts of the US, including Utah, Colorado and California. Last month, the Sunday Tribune found him in Orange City, Florida where he had bought a condominium in January with a $150,000 loan from Bank of America.

After he left Ireland, four more swimmers went to gardaí and swore statements that they too had been sexually abused by George Gibney.  One of the four, once considered a future international champion, claims that Gibney raped her in a Florida hotel room during a training camp when she was 17. She has suffered severe psychological problems throughout her adult life. After gardaí called to her home more than two years ago to inform her that the DPP had decided against applying for Gibney's extradition from the US to face the new charges, she attempted to take her life by hanging herself from a tree with a scarf. That woman continues to be distraught at the state's failure to deliver justice.

The Irish establishment is in denial about sexual crimes committed against children. When the Mister A and CC cases arose, leading to a law on statutory rape being struck down, there was high dudgeon in Dáil Éireann. TDs gave a repeat performance earlier this year when emergency legislation was necessary to close a loophole created by last year's amendment. Government and Opposition TDs alike bellowed for harsh, punitive laws to deal with sexual predators of children. 

Yet some of the most important recommendations of the Ferns Report on sexual abuse have still not been adopted by state agencies. The government's response to the furore prompted by Derry O'Rourke's jailing in 1998 was another Ferns Report, a private inquiry without powers of subpoena or discovery and whose recommendations were optional rather than compulsory. Some victims, their relatives and campaigners against abuse in swimming boycotted the inquiry because they had no faith in it. If politicians' commitment to dealing with sexual crimes against children is to be judged by their omissions rather than by their shouts to the rafters, they are not terribly convincing.

Meanwhile, the suffering goes on and on. Not just in whole families, but from generation to generation. The legacy of this political ambiguity will be felt for a very long time. It was summed up by Bart Nolan, a member of Parents for Change in Swim Ireland, in a letter he wrote to Justice Minister Michael McDowell after the celebrity chef, Conrad Gallagher, was extradited from the US in relation to paintings missing from the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. (Gallagher, as it turned out, was acquitted.)

“If you can extradite Conrad Gallagher for three paintings, why can't you extradite George Gibney for seven rapes?” he asked.
Mister Nolan received a standard acknowledgement of his letter from the minister's secretary.