COUNSEL Mr Eoin Garavan, Barrister.
Achill Rovers committee apologises to referee for ‘distress’ caused by letter
Referee settles civil action against Rovers’ former committee after letter accused him of looking at young girls undressing
The former committee of Achill Rovers has issued an apology to a Mayo soccer referee for the ‘upset and distress’ caused to him and his family by a letter alleging he looked at young girls undressing when he was a referee.
The apology to Stephen Manning of Dooagh, Achill, was read out at last week’s sitting of Ballina Circuit Court, where an out-of-court settlement of damages for defamation was agreed.
Mr Manning brought the case of defamation against George Collins, the former chairman of Achill Rovers football club, its former secretary, Philip McNulty, and seven co-defendants. At issue was a letter the defendants wrote on June 11, 2009, to the Mayo School Boys and Girls League alleging that he had looked at young girls undressing in their changing rooms during an under-12s game in Achill.
Mr Manning denied the claims and in his evidence said that an investigation had ‘fully vindicated’ him of any wrongdoing. He continues to referee in Mayo.
Campaign of intimidation
Mr Manning told his counsel, Eoin Garavan, that as a result of the letter, he and his family have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation that got so bad he had to take his children from the local national school. He added that so much damage was done to him, it was not possible to remain in Achill.
The letter sent by the club claimed that the alleged incident took place before the match, but it was admitted this was written in error, and that the alleged incident occurred following the game.
Ms Catherine Walsh, counsel for the defendants, admitted in the statement that the letter had been ‘carelessly drafted’. They stated that they ‘honestly and genuinely took the view that they were faced with a potential child-protection issue’ and had ‘felt obliged’ to write to the league seeking its guidance.
However, they acknowledged their failings in dealing with the matter and admitted that the letter should have been carefully scrutinised and marked ‘strictly private and confidential’ before it was issued. They added that they ‘sincerely regret any upset and distress caused to Stephen Manning and to his family’. The civil action brought by Mr Manning was part heard at last Tuesday’s sitting of Westport Circuit Court and was due to be completed in Ballina Circuit Court on Thursday. However, Judge Raymond Groarke was told that the two parties were in ‘discussions’ and he gave them time to come to an arrangement, which they did. Details of the settlement were not revealed to the court.
Upon hearing that the two parties had reached an agreement, Judge Groarke said he was delighted that the matter had been resolved and that ‘good sense’ had prevailed. He said sporting clubs like Achill Rovers were ‘utterly essential’ for children and communities in rural Ireland and it was a sad day when clubs find themselves coming into court.
‘Malicious’, ‘false’ letter
THE Achill Rovers committee members claimed they wrote the letter after coaches from the two teams said they were concerned by Mr Manning’s behaviour.
Mr Manning had been refereeing a under-12s girls soccer match between Achill Rovers and Ballina Town on June 6, 2009 when the alleged incident occurred. Ann McHugh, one of the Rovers coaches told the court that she noticed Mr Manning looking into the changing rooms after the match when they were getting changed. She said she jumped up and closed the door and decided to call Mr Collins and explain what she saw because it concerned her.
Sinéad Madden, the second Achill coach said she was in the dressing room when the incident occurred and she claimed she later saw Mr Manning ‘step inside’ the door of the visitors’ dressing room.
Mr Manning claimed that he had not entered the dressing room area after the match. He said the facilities in Achill were very small and that before the game, two of girls waved at him and he wished them well in the game.
Following the game he said his son, who has Down Syndrome, ran into the Ballina Town changing room and he had called on him to come out but denied entering the room. This was confirmed by Ballina Town coach, Susan Naughton who said he did not enter the changing room. She also said she told Mr Collins that he did not do anything wrong on the day when he later contacted her about Mr Manning’s behaviour.
It was also revealed that the letter was drafted by George Collins and handed to Mr McNulty and was not actually seen by the rest of the committee before it was sent.
Judge Raymond Groarke found that Ms Naughton’s information had not been passed onto the committee or Mr McNulty and they had been ‘maliciously misled’. He found that contents of the letter were ‘in part false and in part utterly malicious’ but found that the committee members had fulfilled their obligations. He said because ‘important aspects of information’ known to Mr Collins were not passed onto them, he found that Mr McNulty and the committee were ‘exonerated’ of wrongdoing.
700 incidents of harassment
A native of Tipperary, Mr Manning and his Japan-born wife and three children moved to Achill in 2006 having lived and worked in the US, Japan and the UK and was involved in sporting activities.
He explained to the court that he first got involved with Achill Rovers as a coach when he first met Mr Collins, and later became involved in refereeing at the behest of Mr Collins. He said they had a good relationship at first but it quickly deteriorated when Mr Collins accused him of having an anti-Achill bias during games.
He said the matter came to a head on April 26, 2009 when they were both in a pub, and he accused Mr Collins of launching an abusive tirade against him in front of 30 customers. Mr Manning said he later contacted Mr Collins who he alleged said to him, ‘I said all I want to say, I just want you out of my life’.
He accused Mr Collins of being the driving force behind the letter and felt it had been written maliciously. Following the writing of the letter, he said he asked the committee to withdraw the allegations, but they refused and he said he was forced to take legal action.
Mr Manning claimed that as a result of this, he recorded over 700 incidents of harassment and intimidation where false allegations would appear on the internet. He said his name appeared on an IRA website alleging he was a member of the Parachute Regiment in Belfast, and he was investigated by the HSE after they received an anonymous letter. He said his family was interviewed and asked questions about him before he was ‘completely vindicated’. After reading the letter, Judge Groarke commented that it was ‘horrific stuff’.
Mr Manning claimed that he had nothing against the committee or Achill Rovers but said that all he had in life was his good name, and that had to take the action because the allegations were ‘so heinous’.