Managing Reputations At The Royal Commission


On Wednesday, when I was working on my laptop in the foyer at the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse, I was approached by a young bloke who introduced himself as James Ellender, the general manager for media and marketing at the YMCA. With a pained expression his face, he said he understood that the commission had to go through the process of cross examining witnesses, but wanted to get some more "balance" in the media. The commission is currently hearing details of convicted paedophile and former YMCA staff member Jonathan Lord's crimes. I gave Ellender my email and phone number.

The press release I received about five minutes later from the YMCA is absolutely extraordinary. "YMCA NSW welcomes the opportunity for the public to be made aware of Lord's secretive and sophisticated activities," Ellender wrote, before continuing:

"Unfortunately, YMCA NSW feels that some media reports are dampening the critically important message that the community should be hearing about the insidious, secretive, devious and sophisticated conduct of paedophiles who seek access to children through child care organisations. We understand how this happens but we agree with Jill Abramson, Exec Ed of the NYT about her comments on the trend towards 'scooplets' and the tendency to miss the big picture."

The YMCA's emphasis and approach, in both the hearings of the commission this week and in their treatment of the Lord paedophile scandal after it broke, shows a deep concern with reputation management. The YMCA understands the big picture. 

Their message is that Lord was "devious", and that the media need to appreciate the "complexity and sophistication of strategies used by Lord to gain access to children". The focus is on the individual paedophile's clever behaviour, the way he groomed both staff and children — not on policy failure or standards, which the YMCA claims it has toughened.

As I wrote yesterday, the strategies employed by Lord were far from devious; they were actually quite mundane. Both staff and parents picked up on odd behaviour repeatedly, but did not report it. Relevant staff also still seem to lack a good understanding of what grooming is.

For example, Danielle Ockwell, a YMCA staff member, was questioned by Gregory Sirtes SC, counsel for the YMCA, earlier this week about her relationship with Lord. Sirtes asked her whether she was "close friends" with Lord, whether she had contact with him on social media, socialised with him out of work and so on. She did not view her close friendship with Lord as suspicious at the time. 

Sirtes then put it to her that perhaps she was also the subject of grooming by Lord. In tears, Ockwell said yes. "Perhaps the friendship was not as genuine as you may have believed?" Sirtes asked her, before going into questions about breaches of centre policy.

The assertion, also made in the YMCA's presser, is that Lord was able to "deflect suspicion from conduct that otherwise would have been considered dubious" by also grooming staff. This divests the YMCA of much of its responsibility: Lord was just too clever for our staff.

This focus, by an organisation that has serious questions to answer, subtly undermines the purpose of the Royal Commission by shifting the emphasis away from policy and institutional questions, back on to individual acts of abuse and subjective judgments.

In a similar way, John Agius SC, who was appearing for the NSW Department of Education, cross-examined AS, the mother of AH, the autistic child abused by Lord (she gave evidence anonymously by video link). AH had been suspended by school not long after giving his statement to police for violence against another child, and there have been questions about whether the principal of AH's school acted correctly, given he had been abused.

Agius' line of questioning quickly went from correcting AS's chronology of events to defending the principal's reputation, referencing a "behaviour contract" that AH had signed as grounds for having him suspended. Justice Peter McClellan stepped in: "I presently can't see the point of this discussion," he said. After some back and forth, Agius conceded that if there was no allegation against the principal, then he did not need to ask any further questions.

After the allegations about Lord became known, the YMCA made staff sign confidentiality agreements. They did not know what to tell parents and knew little about the incident themselves; some mentioned Lord was on leave, others told parents to talk to management. AW, one of the parents, told the commission that it was only 15 days later that information was provided to parents about how to speak to their children about abuse.

Similarly, the commission heard yesterday from police that the YMCA was also difficult to deal with. Detective Senior Sergeant Glyn Baker said they were "running scared", and that an email was sent to over 500 families containing incorrect information about contacting police.

Meetings were later organised by the YMCA for parents after the allegations became known, but police were reluctant to attend. "It was in the very early stages of a serious criminal investigation," Baker told the commission. "Would parents be talking to one another about children's disclosures? Would children be talking to one another about each other's disclosures? Would the versions be diluted or contaminated?"

Evidence heard by the commission this week also suggests the YMCA continue to massage the message to parents. On 12 January 2012 the Department of Education and Communities conducted an unannounced "monitoring inspection" of the Caringbah centre. Afterwards, YMCA management emailed parents saying the centre was operating at "best practice", a judgment which Ruth Callaghan from the department told the commission was not consistent with the available evidence.

The department again visited in June on an "educational visit", and this year, on 18 January, the YMCA emailed parents claiming the department had performed "Compliance and Assessment Audits", and the centre was at a "gold star standard".

On 30 May this year, the department conducted a further "monitoring inspection". Contrary to the YMCA's glowing assessment that things are getting better, the centre was rated the second lowest quality standard: "working towards compliance". One of the breaches was a missing working with children check.

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