A former swimming coach who set up a camera in his office to “effectively spy” on young girls as they changed has been jailed for three years for sexual exploitation and producing child abuse materials.
Matthew Coward (32) of Shantalla Drive, Santry, Dublin, pleaded guilty to three counts of the sexual exploitation of three girls and three counts of production of child pornography on dates between September 1, 2021, and February 26, 2022. He has one previous conviction.
Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard at a previous hearing last week that one of the three girls broke down in her father’s car on the way home from swim practice and told him she thought she had been recorded while changing into her swimwear.
Her revelation led to a garda investigation and ultimately the discovering of videos on Coward’s electronic devices.
Two of the videos were categorised as child abuse material, with a further seven deemed as inappropriate. The videos were categorised by the National Cyber Crime Unit as category two, which contained child nudity.
Other videos found on Coward’s devices showed children being filmed stretching in the swimming complex. Internet search histories also showed searches synonymous with teenage pornography.
At the previous hearing, Bernard Condon SC, prosecuting, described a number of videos in which Coward could be seen setting up a mobile device on the floor.
Throughout the videos, young girls would come and try on “swimming skins”. During this time, the girl’s genital and anal regions were visible. At the end of the video, Coward was seen returning to the room and stopping the video.
Sentencing Coward on Tuesday Judge Orla Crowe said the offence was “a considerable abuse of trust” towards these children who she said “worshipped” Coward.
She noted from their victim impact statements the devasting consequences on their young lives and noted that some of the children had been so affected that they had to repeat a year in school.
She said Coward had been “effectively spying” on these three girls, whom he had been training to help reach their “dreams” of becoming professional swimmers, under “a ruse” of getting them to change into this swimming gear.
She said Coward had “violated both their privacy and trust” before she said a headline sentence of six years was warranted in relation to the charges of sexual exploitation and five years in relation to the production of child abuse material.
Judge Crowe said have taking into account Coward’s plea of guilty and expression of remorse she would impose concurrent sentences of four and three years.
The final 12 months of the four-year sentence was suspended on strict terms including that Coward keep the peace and be of good behaviour for two years upon his release from prison.
Garda Sergeant Shane Behan told Mr Condon at the hearing last week, that the first injured party had become upset on the way home from swimming practice and told her father that Coward gave her a pair of “swimming skins” to try on in his office and told her that she would need to get “completely naked” in order to try them on.
The girl noticed a phone propped up in Coward’s office and was worried that it may have recorded her. This particular type of swimwear can take up to 20 minutes to put on. She also told her father that other swimmers tried on “skins” in his office over the past number of weeks.
Coward used chairs to section off part of his office for the girls to change in.
Gda Sgt Behan said the girl’s father called Swim Ireland and spoke with Kate Hills, who was Head of Safeguarding, who outlined that all coaches are required to undertake safeguarding courses and garda vetting. The father was told that any conversations that coaches needed to have with anyone under the age of 18 should be had in an “open” environment and not in showers or corridors.
The court heard that after speaking with the father of the first victim, Swim Ireland contacted Tusla and the gardaí. Coward was told that he was required to stand down as a coach, and he began to shake and said: “What have I done?”
Gda Sgt Behan said that three search warrants were obtained by gardaí and Coward was seen driving in an “erratic manner” after leaving the National Aquatic Centre, including driving through a red light. Gardaí who were observing him stopped him and Coward handed over his electronic devices.
Two of the three girls wrote victim impact statements, which were read to the court by Gda Sgt Behan. The first girl said: “From the moment I found the camera, my life changed.” She said she is “constantly afraid that he is trying to find me”.
When she gets on a bus, she said she “scans it to make sure he is not there”. She said she had wished he had “pleaded guilty at the time” so she would not have “been forced to think about a trial”.
The girl said she suffers from nightmares and has sleepless nights. She said she is more cautious and anxious. “The main thing I have lost is trust. I find it hard to trust my new coaches” she said. “My lack of trust has also affected my friendships,” she added.
In her victim impact statement, the second girl said she “used to love swimming, but it has now become a burden”. She described Coward as “being like a father figure”. The girl has nightmares and said she doesn’t know “why this happened to me”.
The court heard that Coward was arrested on May 3, 2022, for child exploitation. He was detained and interviewed on several occasions. Mr Condon said the maximum sentence for child exploitation is life in prison, with 14 years the maximum for the production of child pornography.
Gda Sgt Behan agreed with James Dwyer, SC defending, that the guilty plea was of value to the three complainants involved.
The garda also agreed that Coward stood down immediately when approached and that this case has garnered significant media attention.
Mr Dwyer said his client is currently living with his wife and children, and Tusla put a safety plan in place, with this referral now marked as “closed”. He gained employment with Starbucks and worked as a night manager to provide for his family.
Counsel said his client has expressed remorse and feels shameful for his actions. He has insight into his actions and has had suicidal ideation.
The court heard Coward had written a letter to the court and the three injured parties who had family members present in court. The court was informed that the families did not want the apology read out, and they did not wish to receive copies.
Mr Dwyer handed several letters to the court, one of which was from Coward’s wife, which described him as “a devoted and loving father”. A letter from Coward’s mother-in-law described him as a “thoughtful, caring and a hardworking man”.
Mr Dwyer asked the court to take into account his client’s guilty plea, the absence of previous convictions, his expressions of remorse, the significant publicity and the effect this has had on his family as well as the collateral consequence this has had on his career.
Written by Claire Henry and Sonya McLean