Child protection expert and author Shane Dunphy told David Hennessy of a case that saw him confronting a demon from his past and how he hopes Ireland can similarly face its own demons regarding silence over scandals such as the mother and baby homes.
In his new audiobook, The Bad Place, child protection expert, journalist and author Shane Dunphy reveals how he faced personal demons to finally find the truth behind a case that had haunted from early on in his career.
Born in Brighton, Shane Dunphy was a child protection worker for 15 years and is the bestselling author of 16 books. His first nine titles dealt with his time on the frontline of social care work, and include the number one bestseller Wednesday’s Child.
The Bad Place sees Dunphy being contacted about a case of missing children from the 1980s, which takes him back to when a young girl described children in care being taken to a residence they would refer to as just ‘the Bad Place’.
13-year-old Jemima Carolyn had alleged that after her parents were killed in a car crash, she found herself in a living hell – regularly raped, sexually abused and beaten by her uncle, Charles Dubarry and his powerful friends at ‘torture parties’.
She had said others were abducted from care homes by a shadowy figure called ‘The Dark Man’ who would intimidate Shane away when he first learned of it.
Determined to confront his past and make amends, Dunphy then begins investigating and becomes obsessed with uncovering ‘the Dark Man’s identity.
His investigation uncovers a vast international child trafficking ring, involving historical child disappearances, unsolved abductions, and a network of secrets, lies and cover ups which spreads up to the top of Irish police and Government.
Shane told The Irish World: “Jemima was a teenager clearly experiencing psychiatric issues, PTSD from what she had been through. The stuff that she was talking about wasn’t really being taken seriously. The police had already spoken to the uncle and he had been cleared.
“I’ve worked in child protection all of my adult life. When I wandered out of college aged 21, I was really hugely underqualified.
“Okay, I had the academic piece of paper but I had no life experience and not a huge amount of cop on. I was a very well meaning eejit wandering out into the world to try and save all of these kids without a notion of what I was walking into. When you experience something like ‘the Bad Place’and an individual like ‘he Dark Man’, it was a very tough learning curve.
“Of course when I did come across it again, it scared the bejesus out of me.
“I saw the Dark Man as being that guy’s head of security running me off.That’s how I made sense of it in my head. I’m just being run off by this wealthy guy who doesn’t want me interfering. That’s how I was able to justify it in my head.”
Two decades on Jemima’s claims came back to haunt him, when a journalist friend was investigating the disappearance of another child. The 11-year-old had told friends he had a huge secret and was too afraid to tell anyone, but said he was going to tell his local priest at confession. He vanished shortly afterwards.
In his research, the journalist found links between the priest – who was later accused of abusing boys but never charged – and Dubarry, who had attended charity events together.
While interviewing friends of Billy, he was told of the parties at Dubarry’s house.
Haunted by the fact that he had let Jemima down some 20 years before, Shane’s research eventually took him to London where he discovered the Dark Man and his female accomplice had been making frequent trips to traveller sites to steal children.
“I realised that this was something I couldn’t turn away from and I had to dig down into.
“I followed the trail to London where there were stories of children from the travelling community going missing.
“There’s where I did come face to face with him.”
Shane was struck by finding the monster to be very human and found the abductor had himself been abducted at the age of 18 months.
He told Shane he had been raised by an Eastern European gang who used him to recruit other street children for sex trafficking and illegal adoptions.
“I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t terrifying but it’s funny how characters can become magnified in your head. In my head that guy was enormous. Yet when I did actually encounter him face to face he’s not much taller than me.
“It was very jarring thing, seeing he is actually just a man, just a person.
“I had heard so many stories about him from other criminals and you hear all of the myths. He had created this persona. He was just a man.
“And of course, by that time I had started to piece together who he is and where he comes from. I realised this is a guy who really was abducted himself. There’s a story of tragedy in his own life. That took a lot of his menace away. This is inherently someone who once was a traumatised, abuse, abandoned child.
“When I look at The Dark Man, I see the child who nobody helped.
“However he’s also done some terrible things as an adult. We all make choices and every kid who has been abused doesn’t become an abuser themselves.”
Soon after the meeting in London, the naked body of a man, with no head, feet or hands, was fished out of the Irish sea. His DNA matched that of the Dark Man.
It may sound like the plot of a horror movie but Shane is keen to show that these horrible things happen in real life and in our neighbourhoods.
“What I’m trying to do here is say, ‘Okay, we all live in this world that is very comfortable and very familiar: The housing estates, the cites, the villages, the towns. We walk around them and they feel safe and very comfortable.
“If you look around, you’ll see there’s shadows there. Everywhere we live there’s shadows and often we don’t like to look. Just down the road from where you live there are struggles happening and there are bad things occurring.
“If we talk about it, if we shine a light on this, it then gives us the power to do something about it.”
The Bad Place also sees Shane looking at historical cases like the disappearance of Philip Cairns who disappeared from Dublin in 1986.
“I wanted to put everything that I’m talking about in historical context.
“In Ireland we as a society have to accept our own culpability in some of the bad things that have happened. This is something that as a society we’re going through at the moment in relation to the mother and baby homes.
“The accepted wisdom even though they’ve never been able to bring about any closure on that case is that Eamon Cooke, the DJ who was a convicted child sex offender, may well have been responsible there.
“He apparently admitted to police that he had some part to play in what happened. He was in the final stages of cancer at the time and suffering from Alzheimer’s so how he was actually able to articulate that, we don’t know.
“I also explain in the scenario put foward that there may well have been a paedophile ring operating in the area in which we see members right across society: Possibly Garda, possibly church. It is put forward by people who knew Philip that they believe that this may have been what happened.
“Philip Cairns’ family do not accept that scenario but it matches some of the information that I came up with.
“The police had said that even though they still cannot say what happened to Philip Cairns they believe, and I believe, there are people out there, numerous people, who know exactly what happened to him.
“I would have been involved in the Ferns Inquiry into clerical abuse in Wexford.
“During my investigation into that there were suggestions there was a ring operating in the South East of Ireland. For that to have been able to exist and operate for as long as it did there had to have been collusion. Lots of people must have known yet that went unhindered for 30 years and God knows how many abused.
“I grew up in Wexford in the 1980s. I went to St. Peter’s College which was ground zero for an awful lot of the abuse that was going on. I saw some awful things during that time which I’m sure inspired me to get into child protection.
“There were priests operating where I grew up. Everybody knew what they were doing. Nobody was prepared to stand against them because you just didn’t. The priests were seen as being just too powerful.
“Thanks be to God that’s starting to change. I really hope that as it does that conspiracy of silence will gradually be eroded and we see people standing up and saying, ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore’.
“It’s very easy to say that the church was just doing a solo run in some of the bad things that it did but it wasn’t because the church was operating in society. We all colluded with what was happening. That’s what I want to show: We all have a part to play in this and Irish society when it comes to the protection of our vulnerable can’t really hold our heads up and say we behaved well because quite often we haven’t.
“Irish society colluded, the government colluded. The government was paying money for every woman that was housed in the Magdalene Laundries and those women were doing slave labour. The church was cleaning up. The same thing applies to the industrial schools and the mother and baby homes. Money was paid for the welfare of these individuals but of course that money wasn’t spent on looking after these individuals. It went into the pockets of the religious orders so we have children living on a subsistence, starvation diet and children dying of malnutrition.
“Irish society knew it was going on but decided to turn a blind eye because it was too unsavoury. We don’t want to look at what’s going on.
“There’s a lot of dark stuff gong on. A lot of things most of us find too unsavoury to look at. We don’t want to know. It’s easier to pretend this stuff isn’t going on.
“I really hope the outcry we’re seeing at the moment about the mother and baby homes will result in something being done. We need to make sure this time something is done.
“I think that we’re seeing that now with the government who are realising you can’t seal the records for another 30 years and think that people aren’t going to be angry. I believe that we’re starting to see a people’s movement which is going to bring those walls of silence to an end.
“The people I really want to celebate in these stories are the survivors. The people that come out the other end.
“For me the hero of this story is Jemima. The hero of the story is Teresa, Alan’s mother who is desperately trying to put right the mistakes that she’s made in her life. Those are the stories I really want to celebrate.”
For Shane, the writing of The Bad Place went some way to giving him closure after 20 years.
“It’s a book about redemption. It’s a book about trying to make sense of the tough times that we go through.
“It was quite a cathartic experience to be honest with you. Some of the books I have written have been quite painful to revisit because they deal with cases that didn’t necessarily go well or bring up stuff for me personally. This was one of those books that was tough.
“The reaction has been tremendous. I’ve had quit ea number of abuse survivors get in contact to say that it has really resonated with them. Some of the agencies that deal with trafficking in Ireland have said that this book really tells it like it is.
“I’ve had people working in social care actually contacting me saying, It’s great that you chose to write about a case in which you initially had to walk away because sometimes in social care we have to accept that there are cases we are not going to make better, there are things that we are not always going to get right, there are people we can’t help. Sometimes these can be the really tough ones’.
“This was an instance where the universe gave me a chance to revisit things and try to set them straight.”
The Bad Place by Shane Dunphy is available now, exclusively on Audible.