By John Kelly
Serious questions were often avoided in the Ireland of the recent past. But that is no longer the case, especially when it involves allegations concerning child abuse. Too many clerics have been convicted of the most serious crimes. And too many victims of abuse, in convents, orphanages, schools and child care centers have revealed too many astounding facts. In the course of this decade, Ireland has discarded its former ignorance, innocence and fear.
Even so, the Murphy Report, released after a detailed investigation into allegations of child abuse against former national swimming coaches, one of whom trained no less a person than Michelle Smith de Bruin, has absolutely staggered the public.
Whatever about the peculiar presence of whiskey in urine samples provided by the Olympics champion, the entire world of Irish swimming, luckily a very small one, is in very hot water indeed.
The alleged transgressions of the triple medalist are now very small beer indeed. It plays a poor second fiddle to the greatest scandal ever to explode in the world of Irish sport. Yet, like other upheavals, early rumors were ignored by parents and the officials responsible for administering the sport. Clearly, the can of worms was never intended to be opened in public.
One of the principals, accused of major sordid child abuse in the incredible Murphy Report, is now living and working in the state of Colorado. He is George Gibney, the most successful swimming coach ever in Ireland and former national coach to the Irish Olympics team.
A close friend and fellow coach was Derry O’Rourke, the trainer who once had Smith de Bruin under his charge. Supported by Gibney, who resigned after rumors began to circulate about him, he also became national coach, bringing the Irish squad to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Perhaps, as Smith de Bruin summed up the feelings of the majority of Irish people after his conviction on child abuse charges: “Why did no one question if he should be allowed to take young girls on their own into the gym in the dark to hypnotize them, or to the pool for special attention? Why did no one question when he made lewd comments about the young girls?”
Almost certainly, the questions were never asked, because the answers were probably too painful for Irish people, including parents, to assimilate.
By any normal standards, the findings of the Murphy Report are absolutely astounding. At the center of it all is a convicted murderer.
He is Frank McCann, former president of the Leinster Branch of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association. In 1991, his home in the southside Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham was burned to the ground. There were two victims, his wife and an 18-month-old niece, whom the couple was attempting to adopt legally.
The garda investigation quickly ascertained that he was the arsonist and, in 1993, he was charged and convicted of murder. It emerged that he had fathered a child with a 17-year-old swimmer and that, even at the time of the murder, he was sexually involved with another young swimmer.
Two to three years before his conviction, a talented young Irish swimmer, Gary O’Toole, who won a silver medal for Ireland in the European Championships, began to voice his fear that rumors he had heard could be based on truth.
Another young coach, a girl from Malahide, Co. Dublin, had approached Frank McCann to voice her suspicions concerning George Gibney, then the national coach.
McCann abused her for even mentioning the rumors and almost immediately afterward, she was fired.
Discreet inquiries made by some journalists at the time indicated that McCann had been particularly keen to squelch any reports concerning coaches, Gibney and O’Rourke. The ironical feature of the leaks was that, in journalistic circles, the rumors first centered on alleged activities on the part of a former Dublin county footballer, a totally innocent man, famed far and near.
They became so widespread that the grievously maligned footballer opted to make a personal statement publicly denying that he had been involved in any such activities.
The man who had the right track and who fearlessly continued to pursue the truth was Gary O’Toole. Although realizing that his career could be seriously jeopardized, along with another coach, Chalky White and a fellow swimmer, he carefully collated the rumors and encouraged more young people to come forward with their accounts.
Realizing that the circle was tightening and that the details of 30 years of abuse on his part were about to explode into public consciousness, George Gibney left the country in 1993, the same year of the conviction of his friend and protective mentor, Frank McCann.
Astoundingly, he managed to get a job as a swimming coach in Scotland before finally departing for the U.S., even though the rumors were now widespread in swimming circles everywhere.
On one occasion, a 13-year-old witness told the Murphy inquiry investigators, he had slapped her in the face and called her a “whore” when she complained that he had abused her. He had slept with her and physically abused her while her parents were away on vacation. Later, after slapping her, she claimed that he forced her to have oral sex. He regularly had intercourse with her, right up to 1977, when she reached the age of 15.
Details have also emerged of how Derry O’Rourke, although neither were named in the report, claimed that “hypnotism” would be useful to his young female pupils. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence for sexual abuse.
After “hypnotizing” the pubescent girls, he would abuse them. One girl, who was then only 12 years old, reported that she had “known nothing” after such a session.
He also regularly had sexual intercourse with another girl who was only 13 years old, sometimes in the back of his car and, occasionally, even in the clubhouse where he coached potential champion swimmers.
Without question, the report is one of the most damning ever to emerge in Ireland, especially when one takes into account the fact that the practices extended all the way back to the 1960s.
It certainly reveals a strange sort of hidden Ireland that few ever wanted to contemplate.