St John of God didn’t tell inquiry about abuse claim

Michael O’Farrell

Investigations Editor

THE head of the troubled St John of God charity gave inaccurate testimony to a statutory inquiry into child abuse – and is refusing to explain why, the Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Today’s revelation that Brother Fintan Brennan-Whitmore gave evidence under oath to the Ryan Commission into child abuse – which has since been proven to be false – comes at a time when the St John of God group in Ireland is fighting for its survival.

Brother Whitmore became the acting CEO of the St John of God group last year as long-time CEO John Pepper went on extended sick leave amid a string of scandals at the charity.

In a statement last night, the charity said it ‘is committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults’. But the char-ity declined to answer MoS questions, asking Brother Whitmore to explain his inaccurate testimony before the Ryan Commission.

Called to testify before the Commission in 2004 Brother Whitmore – who was then the provincial of the St John of God order – was asked when the order received its first allegation of abuse.

SJOG Abuse Commission 1 2
‘1996 would be the first time that certainly anyone can recall an accusation coming forward of this nature or that there is any record of having an accusation from within,’ he said.

Brother Whitmore also testified that all allegations of abuse had been referred to the Garda.

However, the order had received allegations against a member of the order 11 years earlier, in 1985, and did not report this allegation to gardaí until 2012 – some 27 years later.

The details about the 1985 allegations against this member – referred to as Brother D – are contained in a 2015 review of child safeguarding practices at the St John of God order, which was compiled by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI). The report also confirmed that, in 1997, Brother Whitmore had instructed that Brother D have no contact with children – but left him in a prominent role with responsibility over a service that included children’s’ services.

On foot of the report, a letter of apology from the current provincial Brother Donatus Forkan – who is not Brother D – was published on the St John of God website last May.

‘I deeply regret any hurt caused to people while in our care,’ the apology reads. ‘In the past the order’s response to safeguarding issues fell short of what would have been required. This situation has now been remedied,’ it continues.

At the time of his commission testimony, Brother Whitmore made no apology – saying he had checked the files and could find no evidence or proof that any abuse had occurred at St John of God institutions.

It is now known – thanks to the NBSCCCI report – that between 1985 and 2014, Brother D – who is still a member of the order – was the subject of 19 abuse allegations from different individuals.

THREE DECADES SINCE FIRST ALLEGATION

1985 The St John of God Order receives a complaint relating to allegations of child sexual abuse allegations involving ‘Brother D’. In subsequent years, Brother D is the subject of more than a dozen further child abuse complaints.

1997 Following another complaint against Brother D, St John of God provincial Brother Fintan Whitmore forbids him from having contact with children – but leaves him in a prominent role with responsibility over a service that included children’s services.

2004 Brother Whitmore – tells a hearing of the Child Abuse Commission that no one at St John of God can recall any complaints before 1996 and that there are no records to show otherwise. He also says he’s reviewed the files and can find no evidence to prove any abuse by any members of the order.

2009 The Child Abuse Commission report is published. Though it does not feature in the report at all, the St John of God order pays €1m to the Redress Board to secure indemnity from the costs of any abuse settlements.

2012 The St John of God order – now led by a new provincial – initiates an internal review of its handling of child abuse allegations. This prompts the order to report the 1985 child sexual abuse complaint to the Garda Síochana and the HSE – 27 years late. The internal review remains secret.

2015 The St John of God order invites the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland to review its child safeguarding practices. This review criticises the manner in which allegations against Brother D were handled. It also identifies 97 separate allegations against 24 St John of God brothers.

2016 Brother Whitmore is appointed acting CEO of St John of God Community Services when CEO John Pepper goes on extended sick leave as the group is rocked by a series of scandals, including the revelation of millions paid in secret top-ups to managers amid savage cuts to care services.

2017 Health standards watchdog HIQA threatens to close several St John of God facilities after a string of damning inspections finds vulnerable, intellectually disabled residents are being left at risk of violence and abuse because of continuing management and governance failures.

This week: In a statement to the MOS the St John of God order says it is ‘committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults.’

In all, 97 allegations of child abuse relating to 24 brothers have been made against living and deceased members of the St John of God order in Ireland. Brother D is one of five living members of the order – which now numbers just 19 brothers – who has been accused of child sexual abuse.

Brother B self-disclosed to his superiors in 2014 that he had sexually abused one young person. However, upon receiving legal advice, he refused to provide the name of the victim, meaning that no case could proceed.

No prosecutions have yet arisen from any of the 97 St John of God cases – a possible indication of the difficulty in sourcing reliable evidence from intellectually disabled clients dating back some time.

During his testimony to the commission Brother Whitmore said the order had come ‘by no data which was able to verify or establish as fact that’ any of its members had abused.

Asked by the commission why, if this was the case, the order had agreed to contribute €1m to the Residential Institutions Redress Board – to avail of an indemnity from further payouts to victims – he said one reason was that ‘the indemnity was an attractive proposition’.

Ten days ago the MoS asked the St John of God group/order and Brother Whitmore to explain his inaccurate testimony. We also asked whether the order had sought to correct the official transcript of the commission in the event that a mistake had been made.

Additionally we asked why Brother Whitmore left Brother D in a prominent role linked to children’s’ services in 1997 after a sec-ond abuse allegation had been received. And finally we asked Brother Whitmore, the order and the Board of St John of God Community Services if it is appropriate for a person who gave inaccurate testimony to a statutory inquiry and left a suspected child abuser in charge of children’s services to be the acting CEO of the St John of God group.

In response, the group issued a statement that did not directly address these questions.

‘The order does not comment on any individual case,’ the statement reads. ‘It works extensively with An Garda Siochana, Tusla and the National Board for Safeguarding Children to ensure all concerns with regard to individual cases are addressed.’ The statement added that the order had commenced a review of its case files in 2012 to ensure any ‘previous concerns and allegations’ were dealt with in accordance with best practice.

The order also said it ‘invited the NBSCCCI to review its child safeguarding practices and case management files in December 2015’, adding that the improvements identified in this review were being implemented and that the order would ‘continue to review its safeguarding practices’.

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