St John Ambulance Ireland (SJAI) has issued an apology to victim-survivors of sexual abuse after an independent review revealed it “incorporated homophobic myths” into its early training – and “facilitated grooming and predatory behaviour”.
The review, led by child protection expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon, was commissioned by SJAI in response to a number of complaints relating to sexual abuse of members under the age of 18.
In response, Dr Shannon was asked to assess the current safeguarding practices within the voluntary first aid organisation and review the adequacy and effectiveness of the service’s response to complaints of sexual abuse within the organisation.
The report reads: “SJAI’s accountability systems failed to intervene or investigate suspicions or knowledge of child protection risks despite potential risks being highly visible.”
One victim described the focus of SJAI’s child-protection training during the early 2000 as being “woven-through with explicitly homophobic and inaccurate claims”, Dr Shannon said.
‘Equating gay people with paedophiles’
The volunteer recalled the training, provided by an older volunteer, “equating gay people with paedophiles”, adding: “The whole child protection policy is about keeping the gays out.”
Another volunteer revealed that the training provided focused on “myths about the relationship between homosexuality and child abuse”.
Others claimed homophobic views were commonplace in SJAI during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The review determined that there was a “culture of conservatism within SJAI” that “incorporated homophobic myths into its early child protection training”.
Some victim-survivors described lengthy campaigns of sexual harassment and sexual assault. These allegations included harassment and assault of older male cadets.
Dr Shannon revealed in his report that SJAI had failed to act on concerns despite knowledge of the risk posed by a former senior figure.
He noted that elements of the organisation’s “culture of resistance to change poses an ongoing threat to the implementation of robust and effective child protection system and practices”.
Interviewees claimed the organisation began to take child protection seriously from 2011 onwards, when an external social worker was appointed as its child protection officer.
SJAI admit its past structures ‘facilitated grooming and predatory behaviour’
In the apology, written by SJAI chairman David Strahan and commissioner John Hughes, the pair apologised for the organisation’s failings and the hurt caused.
They added that all complaints have been listened to and believed, adding that “it is a source of great disappointment that this was not always the case”.
“We fully accept the organisation’s structures facilitated grooming and predatory behaviour in the past.
“We also acknowledge and deeply regret, that you, the victim-survivors, continue to suffer ongoing and persistent trauma because of the abuse you have described experiencing.”
The apology added that victims who spoke out are to be “commended and admired” for their bravery.
“While it cannot undo any wrongs, we are committed to supporting you in any way possible and working to ensure that past failing in our duty of care to you are never repeated.”
Recommendations made in the review include that SJAI abandon all “remaining military structures and cultural norms”.
Further recommendations include that the service provides support for those who have come forward, a broad re-examination of internal governance is undertaken and enhanced communications processes for complaints are implemented.
The SJAI has confirmed its accepted all recommendations and has prepared an implantation plan.
A new board will be constituted later this year, with a focus on safeguarding.