St John Ambulance failed to investigate child abuse to protect … – The Irish Times

Dr Shannon’s report found there was ‘a significant degree of organisational awareness’ of serious threats to children for years. Illustration: The Irish Times
St John Ambulance failed to investigate concerns children were being sexually abused in the first aid organisation for years, in part to try to protect its reputation, an independent investigation has found.
The report, carried out by Dr Geoffrey Shannon SC, found there was “a significant degree of organisational awareness” of serious threats to children for years, yet the voluntary body failed to take any action.
A former senior figure in its Old Kilmainham division in Dublin is alleged to have sexually abused more than 15 boys in the organisation, between the late 1960s and late 1990s.
The report, seen by The Irish Times, found the organisation’s structure and culture “facilitated” potential grooming of children, and “failed to intervene or investigate despite evidence of potential risks”.
Dr Shannon, former Government rapporteur on child protection, said this failure to take action was down to fear of being sued and to protect the organisation’s reputation.
Calls for St John Ambulance board to step down over child abuse scandal ]
Culture in St John Ambulance poses ‘ongoing threat’ to current child protection ]
Despite a “well established” awareness in the organisation of “specific threats to child safety” by the early 1990s, it failed to act against the alleged abuser, which the report said was “a serious failure” of its ethical duty.
St John Ambulance “could have, and should have, investigated suspicions and complaints of serious misconduct and victimisation”, it said.
The organisation’s “quasi-military” chain of command structure “may have unwittingly facilitated predatory activities”, as it created a system where senior officers could operate with “impunity”, it said.
The investigation concluded that there had been “significant suspicions” that the Old Kilmainham division “posed potential serious threats” to children in the organisation.
Informal warnings were “routinely” given to boys, at times by senior ranking members, which Dr Shannon said reflected “a deep organisational awareness” of the risk posed by the alleged perpetrator from at least the early 1990s onwards.
The report said rumours about alleged abuse or risks to children were circulating within the organisation before then, from around the mid-1980s onwards.
Calls for St John Ambulance board to step down over child abuse scandal ]
A desire to protect the reputation of St John Ambulance resulted in an “organisational dysfunctionality” in the management and response to known risks to children, the report said.
Dr Shannon said its previous policy of reporting child protection concerns up the chain of command was “a wholly inappropriate” approach, which failed to consider senior officers “may be implicated in victimisation”.
The report said it appeared St John Ambulance “feared litigation and damage to the organisation’s reputation if some intervention was undertaken”.
Despite allegations being reported to the organisation about the former senior figure in the 1990s, the review noted it was provided with “wholly inadequate documentary evidence” about the Old Kilmainham division.
The alleged perpetrator, now in his late 80s, was a member of the organisation from the 1950s until around 2000, leaving after one survivor reported the alleged abuse in the late 1990s.
The report said while most complaints focused on alleged abuse by the former senior figure, testimony suggested “there may have been more than one individual engaged in potential grooming or abuse in the pre-2001 period”.
A large number of current and former volunteers described the organisation as previously being “deeply resistant to change”, the report said.
A perceived “culture of secrecy” at the top of the organisation fed into a “dysfunctional” system for holding members accountable, and “inhibited the effective functioning of child protection practices”, it said.
Allegations from survivors that past abuse was covered up were “extremely difficult to verify due to the poor record keeping” of St John Ambulance during the period in question, Dr Shannon said.
The investigation was “unable to find evidence” that early complaints of child sexual abuse were reported to statutory authorities, such as the gardaí and local health boards.
Even now there was a “pervasive denial about past failures” to keep children safe among some within the organisation, the report said.
It criticised attempts by the voluntary organisation “to defend the failures at a systemic level” in the past, by referencing the culture of the time.
Dr Shannon said he believed St John Ambulance “operated an unsafe child safety culture” up to as recently as 2011, after which point reforms were made, however he said further improvements were still needed.
The report said a culture resistant to change posed an “ongoing threat” to the organisation’s ability to keep children safe in the present day.
It expressed significant concern with a number of contemporary child protection cases and alleged abuse in the organisation in recent years.
The inquiry was commissioned in early 2021 following reporting by The Irish Times that revealed several men had been sexually abused by a former senior figure in St John Ambulance during the 1990s.
Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC


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