Understanding the nature of sexual offending

“He ruined my life when he was supposed to be protecting me.”

These are the words of a survivor of the paedophile John McClean, a former teacher and rugby coach in Terenure College in Dublin, who was sentenced last month to eleven years’ imprisonment, along with a three-year suspended sentence, for his crimes.

The trauma and suffering that McClean caused so many young men over decades was heard in court forty-seven years after he abused the first child.

This subject, one victim said, is one that “no one wants to talk about and no one wants to hear.”  It is a difficult and painful thing to look at but we have to understand the nature of sexual offending better and we have to understand the impact of abuse better.  If we don’t, that lack of knowledge can be exploited by people who have the intention to harm children.

In a powerful article, RTÉ’s Crime Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, recalled the experiences of the twenty-three men whose cases were part of this prosecution and described some of the lifelong impacts they have suffered: “Psychological and psychiatric damage, anxiety and depression, a lack of self-confidence, failed relationships, post-traumatic stress, broken families and addictions to drugs and alcohol … suicide attempts, homelessness and criminality.”

This paedophile was aware of his own power and used it to abuse children and manipulate and control other adults.  He identified and targeted children who were particularly vulnerable, and used a combination of physical strength, pretended friendship, and fear, to abuse them.  He created situations to be alone with children; he was cruel, operating in plain sight, hiding “behind a mask of authority and a cloak of respectability,” and making connections with parents so he could work his way into families’ homes.

The immense courage of these twenty-three men led to this conviction but as far back as 1979 an allegation was brought forward but was dismissed by a member of the clergy as untrue.  What amount of harm and suffering could have been prevented if this allegation were handled differently?

The nature of paedophilia and the types of impacts described above are the reasons why, in both jurisdictions, the Church of Ireland has in place its safeguarding policies and procedures.  This is not an issue for one religion or organisation; this is a risk for every faith and every organisation and no-one must fall into the trap of imagining that ‘this could never happen in the Church of Ireland.’

Safeguarding is at the core of the Church.  As the former Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, wrote in the introduction to Safeguarding Trust: “Our work and ministry with children, and with adults who may (for whatever reason) be ‘at risk’, is a privilege but also a trust. We cannot betray that trust in any way if we are to fulfil our responsibilities as followers of a Saviour who came into the world that all may know safety and find salvation.”

If this article has affected you in any way, or if you require any more information about any of the topics covered, please feel free to contact the Church of Ireland’s Safeguarding Officers:

Robert Dunne, Safeguarding Officer (Republic of Ireland):
01 412 5661

Margaret Yarr, Safeguarding Officer (Northern Ireland):
028 9082 8860


Safeguarding policy updates

Since the launch of the new Safeguarding website in August 2020, the policies are now available on webpages and all changes made to them are updated on the website.  You can track these changes here.

Please be advised of the following important update from the Safeguarding Board to the Safeguarding policies for children and adults:

Best safeguarding practice by the Church in respect of convicted child sex offenders requires that they should not hold representational roles as this can be perceived to convey a position of authority by other members of the Church, both children and adults.  This can be particularly sensitive and potentially hurtful for anyone who has been harmed by a sex offender.
An individual who has been the victim of a sexual offence may have to manage lifelong consequences arising from that harm and their needs should be prioritised.  It is therefore regarded as inappropriate that someone with a conviction for a sexual offence would hold any role on a decision making body in the Diocese or in Church leadership of any sort, even when that role does not involve contact with children.

The wording above has been added to the policies in the following locations:

  1. Section 3 – The Importance of Good Recruitment, Selection and Management Procedures, here in the RI policy.  The same section in the NI children’s policy here .
  2. Here in the RI adult safeguarding policy (recruitment section E) and here in the NI adult safeguarding policy.


Supporting our children as schools re-start

By Peter Hamill and Robert Dunne.

Starting school again in autumn is always a time of change, new teachers, new subjects, new routines, exams, perhaps a new school.  How much more is this true in 2020?

Going to school has become a huge challenge for children, parents, school staff and those in management, and many parents and carers having managed lockdown may well be wondering what this next phase has in store.  As the schools look to reopen, advice is available to prepare their children to return to education in this new environment.

The Republic of Ireland’s National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) describes this year as “a time of change, with new rules and routines to learn, in order to keep everyone safe.” 

Change is a process, not an event, and it takes time.  It is often helpful where possible to take things in small bite sizes, one day at a time, and to encourage children and young people to do this, particularly in the early weeks.

Try to build in as much certainty as possible in a time that is so uncertain.   In time, a new routine will develop, and routines have value, in and of themselves for mental health because they provide predictability. 

Communication is important and everyone should be encouraged to communicate how they are doing, including when and how they are struggling with the pandemic, bearing in mind that it is completely normal to feel anxious during a time of change.

Schools have developed countless creative approaches locally and have been encouraged nationally to share pictures of what the school building will look like with families and staff before the re-opening takes place.  Being able to imagine the physical space is likely to be helpful to the student. 

Young people are resilient and learn from others.  This challenging time provides important opportunities for parents and educators to model responses and coping strategies that will help students to learn helpful ways to manage their own fears and anxieties. 

Mental health matters and everyone will need continued support as they adjust to the new term.  People respond to crises in different ways, and government public health websites provide pointers to help which include the importance of keeping in touch with friends, relatives, and neighbours, talking about worries, avoiding information overload, and keeping active.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s mental health advice gives specific guidance on talking with children about the pandemic, including not being afraid to ask children what they have heard about the outbreak.

Try to answer a child’s questions in a way that is appropriate to their stage in life and avoid giving them too much information.

The advice across the island is also to avoid over-exposure to news coverage of the virus.  Creative activities, such as playing or drawing, can help children to express how they feel about a crisis which has been without parallel in most of our lives.

Further information on children’s mental health is available at www.gov.ie/backtoschool and www.nidirect.gov.uk/coronavirus

Dr Peter Hamill is Secretary to the Board of Education (Northern Ireland) and Robert Dunne is Safeguarding Officer for the Republic of Ireland.

This article was first published in the Church of Ireland Gazette.
Photo credit: Andrew Ebrahim/Unsplash

Suicide Prevention in Ireland

In communities across Ireland, suicide generates feelings of grief, apprehension and concern. For every Irish person who dies by suicide, many others attempt to end their lives, and many more suffer the despair that leads them to consider suicide. Historically as a nation we have struggled to talk openly about suicide and how it impacts on us.

However, our national conversation is growing and we are becoming better at discussing and addressing issues relating to our mental health.

The ROI national suicide prevention strategy, Connecting for Life, is a whole-of-society strategy to co-ordinate and focus our national effort to reduce the loss of life by suicide.  Resources, training and contact details for local resource officers for suicide prevention are available on the National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) website

Minding Your Mental Health – COVID19

Experience of outbreaks like coronavirus (COVID-19), can be really worrying and this can affect your mental health. There are many things you can do to mind your mental health during times like this.

Information about this is available at https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/mental-health/minding-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak.html