George Gibney can run from Ireland but his past will always find him | Swimming

It’s taken her decades to get here but in conversation at her home in Cork, Tric Kearney could well be discussing the gruelling training sessions she undertook as a talented child swimmer when she matter-of-factly describes the repeated rapes to which she was subjected by her coach. “Two times a day at least, maybe,” she recalls. “And it could be anything and everything. It was pretty severe.”

Kearney’s is just one of several extremely harrowing testimonies given by victims of a man known to everyone over a certain age in Ireland. During the 1980s, George Gibney enjoyed a weirdly high profile as a quasi-celebrity Dublin-based swimming coach despite working in a sport at which Irish athletes rarely excelled. Over the course of a year, fame turned to infamy following the revelation he was also a paedophile accused of sexually and psychologically abusing some of those entrusted to his care as children over the course of at least 25 years.

Remarkably, Gibney evaded justice in Ireland, leaving the country after the highest court in the land decided he could not face trial for the 27 counts of indecency and carnal knowledge levelled at him by Irish police in 1993 in part because of the time that had elapsed since the alleged offences. This despite the fact that, while some dated back to the 1960s, others were far more recent, going back little more than a decade.

While Gibney might have escaped justice, fleeing his past has proved rather more difficult for the former Irish Olympic swimming coach. The Irish journalist Johnny Watterson kept tabs on him, alerting new employers in Scotland and then California of the accusations he had faced in Ireland. An American reporter by the name of Irv Muchnick also tried doggedly but ultimately unsuccessfully to have him deported from the United States.

In 2018, while still in office, the former Irish politician Maureen O’Sullivan wrote to the US congresswoman Jackie Speier and the US senator Diane Feinstein pointing out that Gibney had been the subject of a new allegation by a 17-year-old Irish swimmer, who claimed to have been raped by him in Florida in 1991. O’Sullivan asked her American counterparts to take an interest in Gibney’s presence in the US. “After 25 years, the victims have still not had their voices heard,” wrote Watterson in the Irish Times a couple of months after O’Sullivan had sent her correspondence but had yet to receive any replies.

In recent weeks three of Gibney’s victims have had their voices heard; loudly, clearly and around the world in the opening couple of episodes of a 10-part series recorded under the banner of the popular Irish Second Captains podcast. Commissioned by BBC Sounds and presented by Mark Horgan, best known for the rich, resonant and ridiculously funny sound beds he dreams up during his day job as Second Captains producer, Where Is George Gibney? has once again catapulted its presumably reluctant eponymous star into the spotlight since his name last cropped up during a session in the Irish houses of parliament three years ago.

Already the subject of rave reviews, it seems destined, like investigative podcasts of a similar ilk such as Serial, Teacher’s Pet and The Nobody Zone before it, to become a slow-burning global hit. Episode one begins with Horgan and his producer sidekick Ciarán Cassidy nervously staking out what they believe to be their target’s home in an unspecified American residential area, before breathlessly tailing his car until it pulls into a shopping mall. After following the two male occupants into the complex, an audibly shaken Horgan later emerges to reveal … well, perhaps you ought to subscribe to his grimly compelling podcast to find out what.

Like many in the true crime genre, Where Is George Gibney? flits effortlessly between the past and present, never more so than when Horgan sits down Gary O’Toole, once the poster boy of Irish swimming, to watch videos of himself talking about his coach as a child on RTE television. “He doesn’t treat anybody any way differently to anybody else,” says nine-year-old Gary, over the audible sound of his 52-year-old self breathing anxiously. “He’s to be admired for the way he approaches his swimmers and the way he approaches his job.”

Now a successful surgeon and borderline Irish national treasure, O’Toole was instrumental in making the allegations of Gibney’s abuse public after being told about them by the retired Dublin swimmer turned coach, Chalkie White. A star in the pool as a child, White revealed Gibney’s squalid secret to O’Toole as the Irish team flew to the 1991 world championships in Perth, Australia. White had also suffered at Gibney’s hands as a young boy and was by that point in his 30s and working as his assistant. “It was a complicated time,” he tells Horgan with no little understatement, during an interview in which his pain is only very thinly concealed.

As well as White and Kearney, Ber Carley, who was first abused by Gibney as a nine-year-old in the 1960s, also makes her voice heard, bravely taking a trip down memory lane with the help of a photo album in which Horgan notices some conspicuous gaps. They are spaces in which photos featuring Gibney would have been, he is told. This trio of victims were among others diligently and painstakingly mobilised by O’Toole after he had learned of his coach’s appalling behaviour and they are to be commended for their bravery in coming forward after keeping their terrible secrets for so long.

“I do feel very lucky to have lived more of my life after Gibney than during Gibney,” observes Kearney, which is at least something the man who raped her daily as a child, before stalking and tormenting her as a young adult, will never be able to say. While he has evaded justice thus far and may never see the inside of a cell, one suspects George Gibney continues to serve something of a gruelling life sentence inside his own personal prison, with precisely no chance whatsoever of parole.

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