At a meeting on Monday night, Dublin City Council voted against a motion to nominate Geraldine Molloy, a long-time community activist and a former volunteer at Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), to fill the north inner-city’s vacant council seat.
It was the fifth time that Molloy’s nomination to take up the seat of independent councillor Anthony Flynn – the CEO of ICHH who died in August last year after two allegations of sexual abuse were made against him – had been on the agenda.
After Molloy submitted a petition in her favour, and her supporters protested outside City Hall, the vote on Monday resulted in 28 voting against, 23 for, and 10 abstaining.
At three past meetings, councillors had deferred the issue. In March, 26 councillors voted against Molloy’s nomination, 23 for, and 13 abstained.
Councillors had deferred that vote from February after they received a letter from musician and homeless activist Asha Iqbal, who had been a client and volunteer of ICHH.
As well as having been a volunteer and member of the management team with ICHH, Molloy is the secretary of the BABS Empowerment Project, a not-for-profit but not a registered charity, which used to operate out of the offices of ICHH and offered services to its clients.
Iqbal had written to councillors in February to raise concerns about, among other things, how Molloy had handled concerns she had raised at a meeting the previous August about BABS’s founder, who is also Molloy’s nephew, William Cummings.
Iqbal’s letter raised issues about Cummings’ professional boundaries with his female clients.
Aside from the details raised in that letter, Iqbal says Cummings overstepped boundaries into professional misconduct, sending a picture of underwear to a client who turned to BABS’s listening service and inviting women to social events and drinking alcohol with them.
Iqbal had flagged to ICHH managers what she felt was a pattern of inappropriate behaviour by Cummings. “Mine was definitely not the first complaint to ICHH about Will,” she says.
Days before Iqbal voiced her concerns at a meeting at ICHH, a nurse had written to ICHH and other agencies about allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Cummings.
In October, another person complained to Finglas Garda Station.
Gardaí looked into both cases, and found insufficient evidence that any criminal offences had taken place, according to the Garda press office.
Speaking generally, Patricia Rickard-Clarke, solicitor and chair of Safeguarding Ireland, says there is no specific law to stop a social care worker from forming inappropriate relationships with their clients.
But there should be, says Rickard-Clarke, whose organisation promotes safeguarding of vulnerable adults.
Cummings said in March that he stood over the way he works, but he declined to respond to detailed queries over the phone. He hasn’t yet responded to queries sent by email that month.
Molloy said that, based on legal advice, she would not be commenting. In February, her solicitor wrote to Iqbal to tell her that Iqbal’s email to councillors was defamatory.
“As a result of the damage to our client’s reputation arising from the allegations made our client’s nomination has been deferred and she has been prevented from taking up her seat,” the solicitor wrote.
On 9 August 2021, Asha Iqbal met with Geraldine Molloy and Ann Birney, who was then a board member of ICHH, according to minutes of the meeting drawn up by Birney.
The minutes show that among the concerns about boundaries raised by Iqbal was a case of Cummings sending an image of a woman in underwear to a client and asking if she would wear them.
The minutes paraphrase Molloy’s response: “Geraldine explained that William, in dealing with clients, would often try to get clothes for them when ICHH didn’t have the items that the clients would wear and had bought the items requested, often out of his own money.”
That’s nonsense, says Iqbal, as there were packets of socks and underwear in the clothes store at ICHH. “There was a room downstairs full of underwear.”
Iqbal had volunteered with BABS and ICHH for almost a year at this stage, she says.
Cummings also met clients at the pub sometimes, Iqbal told Molloy and Birney, according to the meeting minutes.
Iqbal says Cummings also asked clients out socially. Facebook messages show Cummings telling her that he enjoyed going for brunch with her, and inviting her to go for dinner at a friend’s house.
Iqbal says Cummings often arranged support meetings at the pub too, and that he drank alcohol on those occasions.
Iqbal said she was disappointed by how things turned out, as at first she was delighted when she was asked to volunteer with BABS.
“I started off being really grateful, but I realised there was boundaries just wrong everywhere,” she says.
Cummings said on the phone on 28 March that he stood over his work practices and did not believe they raised any issues with professional boundaries.
In the same phone call, he said he drank alcohol with two of his female clients, including Iqbal. The other woman was not homeless, he said, but he was giving her support.
Cummings said he hadn’t read the minutes of the meeting that took place about him in August. “I’m not going to say to you I accept those because then I’m accepting the content of them which I don’t.”
But he said that he had insisted that Iqbal’s concerns be referred to the Gardaí so they could be investigated, and that they were, and that he had voluntarily given his phone to the Gardaí as part of that. “They did a query on it and came back and said it’s unfounded and I have that in a solicitor’s letter,” he said.
Although BABS is not a charity, and so is not overseen by the Charities Regulator, Cummings said it has clear policies and procedures.
“We have all our policies and procedures and we follow them now,” he said. He said he no longer answers his phone late at night.
He declined to comment on whether he had sent a photo of a woman in underwear to a client, “which you keep on going back to”. “I’m not going to make a comment on that,” he said.
Iqbal says that many of the staff and volunteers in ICHH were really dedicated to helping people and so she didn’t want to cause problems for the organisation, which was so intertwined with BABS.
She says she hoped that by making her concerns known informally she could flag these issues with then CEO Anthony Flynn, who would deal with them.
On 5 August 2021 – four days before Iqbal spoke of her concerns at the meeting with ICHH – a nurse wrote to the charity, saying she felt obliged to report allegations of inappropriate exchanges via text between Cummings and clients.
Cummings said on the phone on 28 March that he was “aware of the one from the nurse and I’m still actually helping, I’m supporting that person”.
By the time of Iqbal’s meeting with Molloy and Birney, the BABS listening service had already been suspended from working from the ICHH building because of the nurse’s complaint, says David Hall, the former ICHH chairperson.
The nurse says her complaint is separate to that of Iqbal, who she doesn’t know. Her complaint was referred to Gardaí in August, she says.
A complaint about the BABS service was also made to Finglas Garda Station in October 2021, according to the Garda Press Office.
Iqbal and the nurse say that they don’t know the person who made that complaint.
The nurse said she complained in writing to the CEO and chairperson of ICHH after issues were flagged with her by other professionals.
“I am a medical professional and I had concerns that were reported to me by colleagues in the sector about the conduct of a named charity,” she says.
“There was no reporting structure which made it difficult and there was no regulation of this organisation so I had to make a report to the existing structures,” she says.
She wrote to the board and CEO of ICHH and to the HSE, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the Charities Regulator, who all responded quickly, she says.
However, none of them had the authority to shut down the service, she says. The Charities Regulator informed the Gardaí, she says.
“A sexual crimes unit detective made contact with me with regards to allegations and investigated further,” says the nurse. “They found inappropriate messages but nothing they would deem criminal.”
A Garda spokesperson said: “Following receipt of a report An Garda Síochána carried out an assessment; a formal complaint was not received.”
“There was insufficient evidence to support a determination that any criminal offence had occurred, no criminal investigation took place,” he said.
A Garda spokesperson gave a similar outline of what happened following the complaint, separate to the nurse’s, to Finglas Garda Station: “Gardaí conducted enquires into the complaint and following assessment of the complaint, there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal investigation.”
Who to Tell?
Iqbal says that her concern is safeguarding vulnerable women.
She is surprised that there doesn’t seem to be any law against social care workers asking out their clients or even sending underwear pictures, she says. “We have a problem with safeguarding.”
She complained to the Charities Regulator, she says, but they said it was a matter for the Gardaí.
There is no adult safeguarding legislation in place, says Rickard-Clarke, a solicitor and the chair of Safeguarding Ireland. “We have a huge gap in adult safeguarding.”
Other jurisdictions like the UK, the US, Australia and Canada are streets ahead of us, she says.
Regardless of whether there is a policy in place or a legal framework, professionals should pursue safeguarding concerns and so should the Gardaí, says Rickard-Clarke.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said that the Law Reform Commission is carrying out a review on “A Regulatory Framework for Adult Safeguarding”.
That is “likely to lead to adult safeguarding legislation recommendations across all sectors”, they said.
However, while there is an absence of legislation, ethical codes of conduct are clear.
The Social Care Workers Registration Board’s code of professional conduct and ethics prohibits staff from using their “professional position to form a relationship of a sexual, inappropriate emotional or exploitative nature with any person”.
“Malpractice includes negligence, incompetence, breach of contract, unprofessional behaviour, causing danger to health, safety or the environment, and covering up any of those issues,” says the code.
All social care workers are ethically obliged to report any concerns for the safety and well being of service users to an appropriate authority.
All social care workers must “put the safety and well-being of service users before professional or other loyalties”, says the code.
They must report malpractice by themselves or others internally and if not resolved report it externally.
Where they are supposed to go with it externally is not always clear, though, because social care services like BABS aren’t currently regulated by any agency.
Meanwhile, CORU, Ireland’s “multi-profession health regulator”, which hosts the Social Care Workers Registration Board, does not yet accept complaints about social care workers, says a CORU spokesperson.
It plans to open a register for social care workers in 2023, says the spokesperson. After that, it will accept complaints against people on that register, they said.
“As the register is not yet open for social care workers, CORU cannot process complaints against a social care worker at this time,” they said.
Once the register opens, “A complaint under the fitness to practise process can only be taken against a professional that is registered with CORU,” says the spokesperson.
When it does start regulation it will only regulate those people who call themselves “social care worker” as their job title, she says.
Since the death of councillor Anthony Flynn on 18 August 2021 – after two people made allegations of sexual offences against the ICHH charity CEO – councillors have been divided over who should take his seat on the council.
Flynn hadn’t left a name on official forms, saying who should fill his north inner-city council seat if he died so, according to the council rules, the full council should vote on his replacement.
During the March vote, when councillors voted against Molloy’s nomination, some cited ongoing investigations into ICHH, where Molloy was a volunteer, and a need to avoid risking any further trauma to those who say they were abused by Flynn by giving someone associated with his charity a public position.
They had also by that time received Iqbal’s February email.
After Iqbal circulated her concerns to councillors, she received a letter from Molloy’s solicitors instructing her to withdraw her comments or face proceedings.
On 4 March, independent Councillor Cieran Perry, who is the leader of the group of independent councillors on the council and has been backing Molloy to fill the late Anthony Flynn’s seat, emailed all the other councillors.
“I’ve attached legal correspondence from Geraldine Molloy’s solicitor in relation to the scandalous allegations made against her in an email received before the February council meeting,” he said.
The solicitor said that all the allegations raised by Iqbal in her email to councillors were false and demanded that Iqbal send a retraction and apology to all the same councillors she’d sent her letter to.
Iqbal said in March, and since then, that she is not withdrawing any of the concerns she raised in her February email to councillors.
She says she wants to highlight the issue as publicly as possible on behalf of other, more vulnerable homeless women. It feels like once you become homeless you lose all your rights, she says.
Iqbal says that after she emailed them, she received emails of support in response from a few councillors, she says.
But she is surprised that none of them called her, she says, or asked to see the minutes of the meeting for themselves.
On the phone on 31 March, independent Councillor Perry said that other councillors had suggested a number of other reasons why they thought Molloy wasn’t suitable to become a councillor.
When he checked them out he found they weren’t true, he said. So when Iqbal emailed all councillors in February, he chose not to look into the allegations about Cummings.
“I purposefully did not look into the allegations against William,” said Perry. “My focus has been purely on Geraldine.”
If the allegations outlined in Iqbal’s August meeting with Molloy and Birney were true the Gardaí should investigate them, Perry said.
But Perry doesn’t think the minutes of the August meeting show that Molloy defended inappropriate behaviour by Cummings, he says. “I’m not convinced.”