The new Garda vetting and child protection requirements that have been brought in in the last few years have been met with a certain sense of discontent in the GAA community. A number of mentors have been turned away from dressing rooms of their local clubs because they haven’t fulfilled the requirements of the rules. These were introduced by the old GAA PRO Danny Lynch who identified that there may be a problem in the GAA with regards to the way it treats children.
20 years ago the GAA first became aware of the dangers of child abuse. The Ulster council’s first full time secretary Michael Feeney was convicted of a series of offences against boys and girls that occurred over a 20 year period. The abuse did not occur during Feeney’s time as a GAA secretary and luckily, the organization has not been overly tainted by allegations of sexual abuse, but there needs to be constant vigilance against any threat. That’s why any person who now wants to be a mentor for an underage team must complete three checks before becoming one. They must first do a foundation level coaching course, they must also do a child protection course and they must thirdly be vetted by the Gardai. It takes around 9 days to fulfil the requirements, although there may be a wait for a time to complete the courses.
We live in a different era to what we were used to in the past. 30 years ago, an adult would have thought nothing about leaving a child in the care of a local priest. Now, such a thought seems unthinkable. When you consider that the Catholic Church has spent upwards of 4 Billion, yes, that’s billion Euro, compensating victims of clerical sexual abuse, you understand the scale of the problem facing the GAA, or indeed any other organization that has to deal with children.
Predators abound in every walk of life. It doesn’t matter if the vast majority of GAA members are decent folk completely devoid of any ill intention, just one bad apple is enough to cause untold damage within the organization. In the last few weeks there have been 2 high profile cases, one in England, one in the United States, of high ranking sporting officials who abused their power to take advantage of young athletes. In England the former Crewe Alexandra youth coach Barry Bennell was sentenced to an astounding 454 years in prison for offences committed against young boys. In the United States Larry Nasser, the team doctor of the national gymnastics team was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for offences against underage girls.
On saying that, should there not be a period of grace for long time GAA members who are just trying to help out their local teams? It’s embarrassing, as has happened, for life long members of the GAA to be booted out of dressing rooms, as the vast majority are doing so for the good of the game. It’s hard enough for small clubs to get mentors without further restrictions being imposed on them, and this is causing more people to stay away from it.
I spoke to the GAA’s full time national children’s officer, Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl, about the checks and put that question to him. Is it too difficult to recruit people now because of these checks?
“I think the answer is no because we have seriously high numbers of volunteers who are young people, young married people in their 30’s, who are queuing up to help with our nurseries and academies underage, and they regularly get vetted, they walk into any training course that you give them. I think it’s because they understand, perhaps it’s a different mindset, but they understand that there is a need, and it’s only common sense to train people in safeguarding children and coaching if you want to coach a child . Would you ask somebody who didn’t know anything about finance to be your treasurer? I don’t think so. Why would you ask someone to coach who has no coaching qualification?”
What about the fact that there should be a period of grace given to people who are life long members of the GAA:
“It’s not for us to determine the period of grace because it’s a legal requirement from the 11th of December last year which was when it first came in. Our rules came in five years before that. So if you keep giving people a period of grace all you are doing is kicking the can down the road, and you are dropping your standards if you don’t implement them. As regards vetting I don’t think it affects the number of volunteers at all. I don’t. I’ll give you an example. Last year we vetted our highest number of volunteers in an annual year ever which was just over 20,000. Now that is more than say Tusla (Irish child protection agency) and the HSE have done and all that. It’s more than probably got done for teachers, even though last year there were 40,000 teachers that still haven’t been vetted, and that has all been done by people who go online and fill out the GAA vetting system”
What about the belief that people who just want to help out would be discouraged by the amount of checks needed to be done and the time involved? Does he think that is an issue?
“No I don’t and I’m being absolutely honest about that. I work in a voluntary capacity myself and I don’t believe that to be true at all. For the last six years people have been filling out the vetting forms and if somebody has missed the boat I’d say it would take them about 3 or 4 minutes to fill out the form. The child protection training is 3 hours and if somebody wants to commit to working with children for possibly, you know 5 or 6 years, spending 3 hours and 15 minutes of their time in preparation for that is very very little. The fact that it’s a legal requirement make it even more to be fair. I don’t believe anybody would refuse to be vetted.
“I think at club level any person who is reluctant to be vetted for whatever reason or do safeguarding training will be convinced by their club children’s officer that it’s the correct thing to do. I don’t believe, if you’re talking in terms of tens of thousands of people, and say 6 people refuse to do it. I’d say keep carrying on, we’re doing the right thing and at the end of the day the child is our focus. I’d much rather have this discussion with you, rather than you coming back to me maybe in 6 months time, saying ‘by the way I heard of a person who wasn’t vetted and didn’t do child safeguarding training, slipped through the net and is an undesirable person who shouldn’t be working with children’. I’d rather have this conversation than the other one”
The child protection rules are a necessary step but even if the background checks are as stringent as it’s possible to be some ne’er do wells will slip through the net. For example the once esteemed, now disgraced Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries, had a clean record for many years as a volunteer in underage GAA teams before being found guilty last year of grooming and defiling a child.
I finally asked Gearoid abut the embarrassment of people being kicked out of dressing rooms because they didn’t have the necessary qualifications. Does he think this is a big issue?
“I think that’s a bit dramatic whoever said that. I haven’t heard of it and I will say to you we have about 1500 clubs that work with underage players, that if someone asked someone to leave maybe it’s because they hadn’t got the requirement. Now that hasn’t come to my attention and I’m being honest when I say that. I must say that the number of people who have been vetted has reached 150,000. I think that shows that most people are happy with the vetting, not only doing it once, but when the period runs out which is up to 5 years, they go back into the system to re-apply”
So what do you think? Would you allow yourself to be vetted and do the necessary qualifications? Or do you think the process has become too strict? Let us know your opinions.