UNDERWATER: The Greed-Soaked Tale of Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming and Around the Globe will be published in 2024 by ECW Press. It will include two chapters on George Gibney, in Ireland and in the U.S.
by Irvin Muchnick
Ireland’s director of public prosecutions is seemingly poised, at long last, to make a serious second run at prosecuting George Gibney, the most notorious at-large sex criminal in sports history. My corner of Gibney coverage chooses not to simply sit back and wait for the stenography of reporting the disposition, if and when it actually happens. I intend, instead, to offer ongoing responsible speculation and public education.
No one else is likely to take such an approach. The major American news media hardly know who George Gibney is, even though he twice led the Irish national swimming team at the Olympics. And even though the mysteries of his resident alien status raise important questions about the collusion of USA Swimming and the American Swimming Coaches Association in coddling abusive coaches – possibly about the collusion of the Irish and American governments, as well.
(Independently, U.S. news outlets couldn’t even be bothered to stay on top of the federal grand jury investigation of USA Swimming for insurance fraud and abuse cover-ups. Their failure to keep the heat on the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York might very well have contributed to the characteristic fizzling of that investigation, right in our own backyard.)
As for the Irish media … Notwithstanding strong efforts over the years by a few individual journalists there to pierce the code of silence around the context of abuse stories as they break in real time, journalistic practice there is hobbled by a custom of standing by, resignedly, for officials to have the final say in their own sweet time. Ireland doesn’t have a First Amendment, and the lack of constitutional protection feeds a censorious regime of defamation law. What it all adds up to isn’t exactly the same as reprinting government handouts. But it sort of is.
A report last week in the Irish Times reflected a reticence to name-check Gibney even where doing so clearly would have been relevant and newsworthy:
“The High Court has cleared the way for the trial of a former sports coach on two counts of indecent assault that allegedly occurred in the 1970s. [The High Court is an appellate level below the Irish Supreme Court.]
The man (70s) asked the court to halt his trial, but Mr Justice Anthony Barr was satisfied he will not be unfairly prejudiced by the criminal case taking place some 50 years removed from the alleged events.
The accused’s right to a fair trial will be fully reserved, said the judge, as issues he wants to raise can be taken up with the criminal court judge overseeing the hearing.
The two charges against the former coach relate to allegations he indecently assaulted a boy he coached in the 1970s.”
In Irish coverage, it’s considered out of bounds to add interpretation or analysis that would help keep the Gibney matter front of mind for news consumers. Even something as basic as: “Justice Barr’s ruling here is in a category of case law the courts will continue to confront with George Gibney, whose reconsidered prosecution for multiple alleged historical abuses is now reportedly in the hands of the DPP.”
In 2017, Niall Meehan, faculty head of journalism and media at Griffith College in Dublin, wrote an article for Ireland’s Village magazine entitled “Irish Times struggles with non-Catholic abuse.” The Meehan piece (which unfortunately no longer can be found at the link I provided at the time) ran down the newspaper’s slowness to name either the Newpark Comprehensive School or the King’s Hospital swimming clubs, both run out of Church of Ireland (Protestant) institutions, at the time the Irish swimming coach abuse scandals were unraveling in the 1990s. (Newpark was Gibney’s base of operations, though Gibney himself is Catholic.)
Yet there’s an even more damning critique of the coverage of the Irish Times (and others), before and after Gibney was busted. So far as I know, the only outlet to make a point of it was John Ryan’s now defunct Irish alternative news site Broadsheet.ie. (The Broadsheet archives are still live — go take a look.)
The late Douglas Gageby was the legendary editor of the Times from 1963 to 1986. By the time George Gibney was under indictment in 1993 on more than two dozen counts of child molestation, his lawyer – arguing to the Supreme Court that the charges should be dropped because they went too far back in time for Gibney to be able to mount a competent defense against them – was Patrick Gageby, the son of Douglas Gageby. And one of the Supreme Court justices to whom Patrick Gageby made this argument was Susan Denham, Patrick’s sister and Douglas’s daughter. Evidently, the mere raising of a rhetorical eyebrow over such a web of conflicts was verboten under Ireland’s often impenetrable journalistic-legalistic code.
In my view, an atomized on-and-off fixation on Gibney, unencumbered by a hard look at the systems in both Ireland and America that put youth swimmers at continuous risk of abuse – the sport systems, the judicial systems, the immigration systems – won’t change nearly as much as we’d like for the purpose of protecting young athletes moving forward. In my forthcoming book, I put it this way: “No one need fear for their own careers among their countrymen’s lords of the rings … so long as the public could be guided simply to demonize the presumably singular sick shadow of John George Gibney.”
Which takes us to Gibney ‘24.
Previously, I’ve theorized that what makes the current possibility of a Gibney 2.0 prosecution a better prospect than past rehearsals is that this one is no longer dependent on revisiting or churning old cases already dropped in the wake of the Supreme Court’s curious all-in-the-family ruling in the early nineties.
Rather this time, thanks to the voices of new victims who were emboldened by the 2020 BBC/Second Captains podcast Where Is George Gibney?, there’s a raft of entirely new cases with completely fresh evidence. This circumstance combines with a more recent body of Irish case law now less sympathetic to defendants facing charges that go back in time a long way.
But there’s a potential poison pill in these new cases, too, since it’s now an additional three decades since Gibney prosecution 1.0 was abandoned and he absconded to the U.S. The new allegations go back not just a long way but a really really long way. If the DPP is looking to skirt the complication of reviving old criminal charges, then these new criminal charges suit. (And Justice Barr’s ruling in the case reported by the Irish Times is a hopeful sign.) If, however, the DPP chooses to take the position that the new cases stretch past the breaking point even the Irish courts’ new willingness to loosen interpretations of what Americans call the statute of limitations, then there’s also rationale for that conclusion; and the priests of the Irish legal establishment — no less than the corrupt, public-trust-challenged current majority of the U.S. Supreme Court — will find a way to make it stick.
Gibney prosecution 2.0 is well justified. Like many others, I hope it happens. But it’s no slam dunk. That’s why, during the pendency of the DPP’s consideration, we need more coverage, not more sitting on our hands. Like so many things piously held up as pure matters of the rule of law, the George Gibney cover-up was, is, and always will be a mix of the rule of law and realpolitik.