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Tom Humphries was afforded a trust that makes his crimes even more odious

Tom Humphries joins a string of other abusers who have eroded the simple innocence of growing up on a glorious field, writes club camogie player and TheJournal.ie news editor Sinéad O’Carroll.

Sinead O'Carroll

“YOU’RE THE O’CARROLL one?”
“Yeah…”
“Was watching there last week. You’re playing great stuff.”
“Oh no, I’m not that one. It’s the other one you’re thinking of.”
“Oh, you don’t play?”
“No, I do. But you’re talking about my sister.”
“You’re the corner back.”
“Oh yeah, that is me. Sorry, people are usually talking about my little sister. She’s the good one.”
“No, I meant you. You’re very handy. You’re playing well. Keep it up.”

Versions of this chat are my favourite memories of underage camogie.

The bond between player and GAA starts at a young age, an intricate relationship born of storied matches, horrible training sessions, complicated friendships and conversations like these - usually with elders admired the parish over.

At a time when we were desperately trying to prove ourselves equal to the boys on the pitch, any recognition from hurlers we watched play with our dads and brothers week in, week out was embraced with pride. We relished it.

That praise was given innocently. And received even more so.

In the weeks since Tom Humphries appeared in court, guilty of defilement and grooming offences, I have remembered and felt again the weight those simple remarks carried. Their power, this time, twisted ominously. We heard how he, as a 45-year-old man and famous Irish Times journalist, sent a promising player a text: “Don’t give up; keep trying.”

It was December 2008 and she had just taken part in a session with an Under-14 county development squad.

Those remembered conversations again…

“Well done, Sinéad. Not everyone is that brave going in.”
“Dad, they said I was good at blocking.”

The GAA-inclined amongst us will automatically associate Under 14s with Féile. To translate that for the yet-to-be-converted, it’s the year that people other than your parents start paying attention. There’s a national competition at stake, and you’re representing The Club.

An overheard remark from the sidelines will send you home beaming, never mind an individualised text. And not just from any auld fella. A person who everyone in your area loves. A person you’ve seen in the papers and on TV.

Nine years ago, Humphries was a champion of minority sport. He wrote about ‘chicks with sticks’, a headline that doesn’t age well but was actual locker room talk the week it appeared. There was our sport being written about positively in The Irish Times. By Tom Humphries.

He wasn’t just any aul’ fella. He wasn’t the man people told you to be wary of (we all know the one). He was a “hugely respected” and “hugely regarded” volunteer with the GAA. He was “Ireland’s most talented sportswriter… and a fine man too”.

What would 14-year-old me have done if those still oft-recalled words were offered not with good intentions – but with sinister designs?

Sport is a wonderful equaliser. All of those men and boys who trained us, played with us, taught us, encouraged us, supported us and helped us fall in love with hurling are an important ingredient in the growing of our games.

But the playing field can be a hunting ground too. A previously-all-too-exposed one.

A request for a number could easily go unnoticed. Access to a contacts list would not be seen as a red flag.

The victim in this case, the court heard, presumed Humphries got her mobile phone number from someone in her club but she still doesn’t know for sure. A seemingly innocuous start leading to tens of thousands of messages being sent at all hours – almost half of them between 10pm and 6am. There were pictures of genitalia and directions to “be my whore”.

The bombardment continued until, as she said herself, she became more able to deal with the sexualised content of Humphries’ contacts. By December 2010, he moved his crimes to an apartment in Santry where he brought the teenager after collecting her from outside her school. There, he undressed her and defiled her. Over the next 14 months, he repeated the act multiple times – performing oral sex on her and getting her to perform oral sex on him.

Today, Humphries was handed a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for exploitation and defilement.

The exploitation and sexual encounters at such a young age left a woman “physically, emotionally and mentally ill”, but “forever grateful” to the Humphries family for saving her from the situation.

“I hope and pray that you can all get past this and somehow manage to live a normal, healthy life,” she told them in a statement.

In a world of Snapchats, Facebooks, WhatsApp and what-have-yas, more than prayers and hopes are needed to protect today’s 14 year olds.

“You may not engage in social media with underage players,” is the succinct response from Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl, the GAA’s National Children’s Officer, when asked about how the organisation deals with constant changes in modern life.

The simple rule, introduced in 2012, is contained within the Association’s 110-page ‘Code of Best Practice in Youth Sport when working with underage players’:

Coaches and mentors should never place themselves in a compromising position by texting or communicating via social media sites with underage players. All such communications regarding GAA activities should be sent via the parents or guardians of the underage player, unless otherwise agreed with the parents/guardians, in writing.

I know this is true. None of ‘the kids’ as we call them, probably to their eternal annoyance, are allowed in our Senior team WhatsApp group. It can be a pain – or a bit mortifying – when you make an ‘in-joke’ only to realise there are parents’ eyes on you, but then you read how Humphries casually got his victim’s number…

Today, anybody who is going to work with children within the GAA needs to do three things: take part in a three-hour training programme which has been endorsed by the Child and Family Agency Tusla and Sports Ireland; be garda vetted; and obtain an official coaching qualification.

It’s comprehensive, perhaps even daunting for potential volunteers, but as Ó Maoilmhichíl says, ”It’s not a case of ‘you’re good enough’ anymore.”

From his Dublin headquarters, Ó Maoilmhichíl says he is “pleasantly surprised” at the progress that has been made in both vetting and the code of practice.

The change has been more organic, he believes, and any expected reluctance to adopt certain rules – or a #NotAllMen-style campaign – has been avoided because of the wave of younger parents becoming involved.

There has been a mindshift. Parents want higher standards – and proof of them. Where there may have been reticence in the past, it is now a minimum standard.

The stats bear this up. Just five clubs are without a dedicated children’s officer. This year, 20,000 people will be vetted, adding to the already more than 130,000 in the system. Decisions on suitability following disclosures from An Garda Síochána are made centrally to ensure “one level of threshold of acceptability” and avoiding any local influence.

The vetting is only “one little thing” though, Ó Maoilmhichíl admits. “It sounds great but it’s only minuscule.”

Sergeant Jim Gould of the National Vetting Bureau in Thurles agrees.

“In reality, it doesn’t give you any potential problems.”

Gardaí now make disclosures about every single vetting applicant. More than 80% of them, however, will be returned with the line that there is no data to disclose.

“The reality is that, unfortunately, [vetting is] necessary,” says Gould.

“The system highlights that small percentage that needs highlighting… But there is no crystal ball. It’s not going to tell you what’s going to happen…”

The rules, the code, the strict registration process with parents have all replaced the implicit trust in people of the past.

“Now, we trust people because we have checked,” says Ó Maoilmhichíl.

I remember that trust…

“Dad, can you bring the girls to training? I can’t go but you’re going up anyway.”
“Sure. Make sure you tell the lads you won’t be there.”
“Yep, texting them now.”

Tom Humphries was a major recipient of that past trust, some of it even filtering through to the present day. Judge Karen O’Connor gave ‘careful consideration’ to testimonials handed to her on his behalf mentioning his journalism and his involvement with the GAA.

But his volunteering with camogie teams, his public championing of those chicks with sticks, even his skilled penmanship, were not mitigating factors in this case. They were aggravating ones.

His high regard, the respect he commanded, the colleagues who adored him. The career he carved. All of it let him hide his crimes in plain sight. They removed any protective barriers that should have shielded his victim.

Just as his counterparts in swimming, gymnastics and soccer did before him, he vindicates our lack of trust. He is among the reasons for these new, gratefully received rules. And he has eroded, just a tiny bit further, the beauty and the simple innocence of growing up on that glorious field.

Read: Former Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries jailed for 2.5 years for child sex offences

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