The YMCA Defence (Or: He Fooled Us All)

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The YMCA is only a small player in the child care industry in Australia. About 1 million children are in such care. The YMCA, in NSW caters for about 11,000 children at about 100 centres, and employs about 500 staff, which is about a 1% market share.

The Royal Commission is hearing of one YMCA case, that of Jonathan Lord (see previous postings), who joined the organisation at age 21 and was last year sentenced to a minimum of 6 years prison for the abuse of 12 boys in his care.

The CEO of the Royal Commission, Ms. Janette Dines, says that this one case is to provide the basis for assessing what changes to procedures are required to adequately regulate the child care industry. This is an ambitious goal from one case study. Although others have told the enquiry of more YMCA cases (and told to this author for that matter), these cases will not be considered at the hearing.

“This hearing will investigate where systems failed to create a child safe organisation in the context of out of school hours’ care. The Commission’s function is not to examine individual cases of alleged abuse,” said Ms Dines in a press release.

The bulk of the YMCA’s defence was presented by its lawyer, Gregory Sirtes SC, although its New South Wales state CEO, Phillip Hare made some statements outside the enquiry.

Sirtes resorted to a tactic seen previously with the Catholic Church. That is, we were victims, too. The venerable Mr. Sirtes stated that “While the deepest sympathy extends to the children upon whom he centred his abuse, the victims of Lord’s crimes extend beyond those who were physically abused; parents and staff of the YMCA (NSW) who both once trusted and supported Jonathan Lord were also victims of his predatory behaviour”.

Mr Sirtes denied that the YMCA had any history of child sexual abuse cover-ups, claiming that it had never transferred staff against whom allegations were made and had no history of making payments to victims or of confidentially settling those claims (unlike those nasty religious organisations).

The YMCA’s mouthpiece further distanced the organisation from culpability by insisting :‘‘That Jonathan Lord was able to infiltrate an organisation with industry-leading practices and win the trust of co-workers and parents demonstrates the critical need for the YMCA and all organisations that work with children to improve the focus on training staff to identify grooming behaviour.”

Counsel Assisting, Gail “Snow White” Furness (see previous posting) raised the matter that the YMCA had not informed parents of the Lord allegations in a timely manner, and that staff had been made to sign a confidentiality agreement not to talk about the matter to anyone, even between themselves, on pain of dismissal from their employment.

Sirtes noted that the YMCA had acted in this way because of a police direction, but it is believed that the NSW police service will deny this when they appear before the Commission.

In an attempt to backtrack a little, The YMCA lawyer said that “This is the one area in which the YMCA recognizes that it let down its key stakeholders. The organisation now appreciates that staff and parents felt unsupported and uninformed by the YMCA as the charges against Lord began to emerge.’’

He still maintained that the YMCA only received information from police at the same time as the general public, and this had impeded their ability to assist staff and parents. He admitted to “an overzealous interpretation of police advice to keep certain matters confidential” and this resulted in the YMCA having its staff sign confidentiality agreements.

‘‘In endeavouring to fully co-operate with the Police Service, the YMCA caused a loss of trust with its staff, and exacerbated a difficult situation for both those staff and parents,’’ Sirtes said. Finally, he said the result was “not intentional” and “is regretted.”

A November 2012 letter to a parent (known as “AT”) from YMCA CEO Phillip Hare, was tendered in evidence. It stated that “We continue to struggle to understand why it is people think we have been complicit in (Lord’s) actions”, and “the YMCA shares your pain”. Where have we heard that last part before?

Hare continued to indicate he was in a state of denial.

Specifically, he blamed Lord’s skill in fooling people, rather than his organization’s lack of due diligence. Lord “went above and beyond to help out parents” and would “go so far as to open the childcare centre for a parent who had to start work early,” according to Hare. He would also “baby-sit to help out parents (this is when some of the abuse occurred)” who were “often single parents.”

He went on to say that Lord had “gained the trust of the children, the parents and the fellow staff members to really get close to these children.” Lord was recommended by another childcare worker (his stepfather, it has been alleged), and he was well known in youth groups. He had passed all the police checks, and his two references were fine (except for the one he didn’t know about, from the U.S. YMCA).

If Hare is to be believed, the 21-year old Lord was some kind of paedophile genius. Lord, he said, was “an insidious and deceitful individual, who was grooming not only children and parents, but the YMCA itself.” As a result, Hare had counseled staff “not to blame themselves,” and noted that “the impact is still devastating for everyone.”

Mr. Hare also followed the usual religious line, that we didn’t know much then, but things are really, really, really good now.

“We’ve never had this happen before, we never tried to cover it up, immediately we found out we stood him down and co-operated fully with the police,” he said. The YMCA now has a ban on its workers moonlighting as baby sitters and there is no longer any “one on one contact” between workers and children in cars (both of which Lord did).

Finally, Hare tried to justify what appeared to be a cover-up by claiming that “Because we’d never dealt with a child sex offender before, the criminal process is one that we wanted to make sure we didn’t jeopardize. We didn’t want to get to a court situation where our actions had actually allowed Jonathan Lord to get off the charges.”

On this basis, staff were called to a meeting and told not to discuss the allegations with parents, the media or among themselves. They were warned “unauthorized disclosures” could lead to termination of their employment. He now regrets this action.

[Postscript: The Royal Commission has invited people and organisations who wish to appear at the next hearing to contact it through the official website. The hearing, in late November, will relate to the Anglican Church’s North Coast Children’s Home (see previous posting).]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: What the parents said

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

 

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