A review of St John Ambulance Ireland’s (SJAI) handling of complaints about abuse has found that a “culture of deference” still exists within the voluntary organisation.
The report, carried out by Dr Geoffrey Shannon QC (pictured), also finds that some issues remain in relation to the governance and management of SJAI’s cadet system, and that some members perceive some of its governance culture and practices to be “dysfunctional”.
Dr Shannon says that, while there is a clear difference between SJAI in the past, and the organisation today, aspects of its culture and practices still require change and improvement.
“These include a pervasive denial about past failures by some in the organisation,” he adds.
The review was commissioned in March 2021 after several men came forward alleging that they had been sexually abused as young teenagers by a senior officer at the organisation during the 1990s.
It makes a series of recommendations that Dr Shannon believes “must be made”, in order for SJAI to strengthen its commitment to robust and effective child-protection systems”.
The review acknowledges improvements made in recent years, but says that there was no formal child-protection system in place before the late 1990s, while SJAI later struggled to implement evolving policies from the early 2000s.
It believes, based on the evidence available, that SJAI failed to undertake any meaningful investigation into known or suspected threats to children before 2000.
The review describes a failure to being any formal investigation after a full disclosure of serious grooming and child abuse as “a serious failure of SJAI’s ethical duty of care to its membership”.
There was a “misguided belief”, it adds, that a criminal standard of proof was needed before any intervention, while there was also a fear of litigation.
The review says that the organisation operates under a quasi-military structure that places a high value on obedience to rank, and a low value on autonomy. These structures, it states, are “not appropriate for a healthy child-protection and safeguarding culture”.
The review believes that the culture of deference in SJAI, if not completely eliminated, “undermines the implementation of robust and effect child-protection systems and practices”.
It recommends a “reconsideration” of the hierarchical structure and culture of the organisation, with the creation of “robust accountability frameworks”.
Typed and dated reports
It also states that document and file-management systems at SJAI are “unsatisfactory”, and do not meet the standards required of a voluntary organisation working with children.
The review recommends a system of typed and dated reports for each complainant and every incident, or suspected incident, that raises child-safeguarding concerns.
The review adds that the organisation “lacks professionalism” in some of its operative culture by relying too heavily on volunteers.
“The review believes that this lack of direct and professional input weakens the implementation of robust and effective child-protection systems,” it states.
The recommendations also include an SJAI apology to victim-survivors and others, and that the organisation should put in place “appropriate therapeutic support” for those who came forward to speak to the review.
There is also a call for “a broad re-examination” of SJAI’s internal governance, transparency, and accountability mechanisms.
The review urges SJAI to provide internet-safety education sessions to all of its members and divisions.
SJAI has issued an apology to victims and survivors of abuse, adding that it is committed to implementing the review’s recommendations.