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Pictrured Survivor Mick Finnegan stands outside the offices of St John’s Ambulance asking them to publish a report on past child abuse ‘without delay’. Sam Boal
Child Sex Abuse

St John Ambulance still has ‘quasi-military structure’ not appropriate for children

The report details a wide range of child grooming and abuse tactics allegedly employed by a former senior St John’s Ambulance volunteer.

AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW into past child abuse within St John Ambulance Ireland’s (SJAI) ranks has stated that the organisation still operates under a “quasi-military structure” which is not “appropriate for a healthy child protection and safeguarding culture”. 

Concern over the military-like “chain-of-command” accountability system is just one area of outstanding concern identified in the report which was carried out by Dr Geoffrey Shannon, former child protection rapporteur and Circuit Court judge. 

Since the review was released this morning, Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman has welcomed its publication, and has thanked the people who participated in the review, acknowledging “how difficult it can be to tell others about abuse experienced in childhood”. 

O’Gorman stated that SJAI is not overseen by his department, but added that officials have engaged with SJAI in relation to the independent review. 

He also said that SJAI and Tusla has arranged for supports to be available to victim- survivors today. 

TD Patrick Costello, the vice-chair of the children’s committee, said that the huge milestone reached today “in the search for truth and transparency” would not have been possible without the tireless work of Mick Finnegan, and other survivors. 

Costello said that today is not “the end of the journey”, as he will be pushing O’Gorman to carry out a full review of child protection in the voluntary first-aid sector. 

Since the review was completed last year, survivor Mick Finnegan has campaigned for its publication, carrying out a daily protest outside the SJAI HQ in Dublin in recent weeks. 

Grooming tactics

The review details a wide range of grooming and child abuse tactics allegedly employed by a former senior volunteer who was involved with the Z27 division of the organisation. 

Testimony given by victim-survivors in relation to the actions of the alleged perpetrator ranges from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. 

The “consistent” testimony from victim-survivors described instances of child abuse within the SJAI organisational context and outside of it. 

These instances included, according to the review: “Bringing children on weekend trips that were not officially sanctioned, purchasing of alcohol for victim-survivors, the exploitation of SJAI rank, training and mentorship roles to gain access to areas with younger members of the organisation; campaigns of intimidation, humiliation and manipulation, and providing children with paid work opportunities outside SJAI.

“Victim survivors described being routinely sexually assaulted by an individual during SJAI branch and cadet meetings, and during public duties. Other participants describe prolonged sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the review added. 

Dr Shannon also stated that, having reviewed testimony and documentary evidence, it is the belief of the review that the “structure and culture of the SJAI during these periods was such as to facilitate the kind of grooming strategies described by victim-survivors”. 

The review also received evidence suggesting that there may have been “more than one individual engaged in potential grooming or abuse in the pre-2001 period”, however the review states that no reports concerning other individuals prior to 2001, but these alleged instances were reported after 2001. 

The report states that SJAI’s failure to initiate any formal investigation following a full disclosure of serious grooming and child sexual abuse was a “serious failure” of the organisation’s duty of care towards its members, which included hundreds of cadets. 

According to the last figures supplied by SJAI to the review, there are currently an estimated 450 cadets within the organisation. 

The review notes that it is highly likely that there were “widespread rumours” about threats and risks to child protection within the organisation, and that according to testimony, young cadets would have been given “informal warnings” by senior ranking members. 

Reputational protection

Dr Shannon states the review’s belief that a failure to act stemmed from a misguided belief within the senior levels of the organisation that evidence of a “criminal standard” was needed for them to intervene, and also that a “fear of litigation” also resulted in a “paralysis” in the face of the first formal complaint made by a victim-survivor. 

However, the military-style hierarchical structure of the organisation itself, which the report states partially still persists today, also “facilitated predatory behaviour”. 

The review describes that system as a “rigid” one which placed a high value on trust, deference, and compliance. 

It further states that the chain-of-command ”insulated” alleged child abuse practices ongoing at the time from “effective intervention and accountability”. 

This system “failed to account for the possibility that individuals in that chain of command hierarchy may have been implicated in the victimisation complained of”. 

One worrying element of the military-style leadership system in place in the organisation described by members who testified is the ‘Court of Inquiry’. 

This quasi ‘court’ was reportedly a formal accountability process which the review describes as “distinctively military in nature”. 

It lacked transparency, the review says, and the SJAI failed to explain to members what its functions and processes were – it was mandated under the organisation’s rules and regulations published in 1947. 

“The review believes that the court of inquiry process contains many concerning features which fail to respect individual’s constitutional rights to natural justice and fair procedures,” it states. 

One rule related to the court – which requires that legal action taken by an officer or member within SJAI against another member or officer should be submitted first in writing to the organisation’s commissioner. 

Dr Shannon’s review has recommended that this rule be removed, as it seeks to constrain members constitutional rights, and that the entire Court of Inquiry process should be majorly reformed. 

The review also put forth that a culture of secrecy was manifest within SJAI, which was closely linked to “dysfunctional accountability structures”, and that it inhibited the effective functioning of child protection practices. 

The review also believes that there was a “culture of conservatism” within the ranks of the organisation, which may have involved “homophobic myths”  incorporated into its earliest child protection training. 

The review stated its concern that the SJAI still does not have an effective central management system for its cadets, on first inquiry, it appeared to Dr Shannon that accurate figures for the number of cadets involved with the organisation may not have been available, although these were later supplied. 

The division where the alleged perpetrator whose actions the review focused on had an unusually high level of “autonomy and very little oversight”. 

“This, it is alleged, extended to a failure by SJAI to intervene to stop the transfer of children into a division into a division that was widely understood to pose risks for children,” the review states. 

It also notes, that given the seriousness of the allegations made in relation to the division, there was a concerning lack of adequate documentary evidence and files” made available to the review about its activities. 

The review also notes that most of the victim-survivors interviewed stated that they were never made aware of any formal grievance procedures system, and a number believed that no such system existed. 

The review did state that reports have confirmed that there has been a period of “concerted reform and change” within SJAI in relation to child protection, and that there has been a commitment and a meaningful attempt to establish robust safeguarding practices. 

In its key recommendations, the review states that cadets should be maintained as part of SJAI, but that there also needs to be a “broad re-examination of its internal governance”, with key child protection measures brought in, including the introduction of an independent national safeguarding officer.  

Dr Shannon suggests in the review that SJAI should provide therapeutic supports to the group of victim-survivors, beyond the maximum of six counselling sessions they have offered.


For the first time, SJAI has issued a formal apology to the victim-survivors who took part in the review process. 

The apology, offered by Chairman David Strahan in line with the first recommendation of the review, states: “On behalf of St John’s Ambulance Ireland, we wish to unreservedly apologise to you, the victims, and survivors of sexual abuse at the organisation

 ”We are sincerely sorry for the hurt that was caused to you, your families and your friends, by our organisation’s failings. 

“Please be assured that you have been listened to and you are believed. It is a source of great disappointment that this was not always the case.

“We fully accept that the organisation’s structures facilitated grooming and predatory behaviour in the past.”

The apology also acknowledges the ongoing trauma of survivors, and states that SJAI is committed to supporting victim-survivors “in any way possible”. 

SJAI also said it accepts every recommendation in the report in full. 

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