Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]
May 12, 2023
By Russell Jackson and Bec Symons
A former elite junior football coach has been accused by former AFL player Daniel Hayes of rape back in 2005 and a writ has been lodged in the Victorian Supreme Court seeking damages.
- Mark Patrick Heaney has denied allegations he raped former AFL player Daniel Hayes
- Heaney worked at schools and helped set up a Swans academy while serving as the AFL’s regional manager for northern NSW
- In 2014, Heaney was jailed after pleading guilty of one count of using a carriage service to groom a person under 16 years
Mark Patrick Heaney was a senior AFL employee who played a crucial role in the code’s expansion into New South Wales and coached Sydney Swans academy teams for three years.
Heaney, who was the AFL’s Northern New South Wales regional manager between 2009 and 2013, lost his job with the league in 2014 when he was convicted and jailed for grooming a 13-year-old junior footballer in 2013.
Warning: This story includes text messages including graphic sexual content.
Between 2004 and 2008, and at the time of the alleged incident, Heaney was an assistant coach and regional development manager for the Eastern Ranges team in the AFL’s TAC Cup (now the Coates Talent League) Under-18s competition.
In response to questions from the ABC about Hayes’s allegation in the writ, Heaney said: “I deny that. I had a professional relationship with him as a trainee and player.”
The court document alleges that “As a result of the abuse [Daniel Hayes] self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. He has made three suicide attempts and been admitted to rehabilitation for alcohol and drug dependence.”
Hayes has also made a complaint to Victoria Police over the alleged incident and this is the source of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Do you have more information about this story? Contact Bec Symons at email@example.com or Russell Jackson at Jackson.firstname.lastname@example.org
A coach who ‘ticked all the boxes’
On his personal website, Mark Heaney describes himself as “Lismore born, Brisbane raised. Reader, runner, kayaker and horse-racing owner” and says he now works in “health — pathology”.
But in the mid-2000s, when he was based in Victoria, Heaney was working his way into the ranks of elite junior football coaching.
It was while working as a PE teacher, year-level coordinator and director of sport between 2000 and 2008 at Mount Lilydale Mercy College, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, that Heaney became involved in the AFL’s elite Under-18 football system.
A spokesperson for Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools confirmed to the ABC that Heaney took leave without pay from Mount Lilydale Mercy College in 2005 to take up a role with AFL Victoria (then Football Victoria) and formally resigned from the school in November 2005. Heaney returned to the school in 2007 and served as director of sport until the end of 2008.
The statement continued: “No formal complaints were received by the school in relation to Mr Heaney.”
Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools also confirmed that Mount Lilydale Mercy College has not been the subject of civil litigation or National Redress claims related to Heaney’s tenure.
“However,” the statement continued, “records show [Heaney] was spoken to by the Principal in 2008 about keeping appropriate professional boundaries with regards to student communication and interactions.”
In response to questions from the ABC, Heaney said: “I had a meeting but it was not about anything inappropriate.
“It was in the early days of social messaging and a few students I also coached externally. The principal discussed the need to maintain professionalism as they were both students and players on an external team I coached.”
Between 2005 and 2008, Heaney was an assistant coach and part-time AFL Victoria regional development manager at the Eastern Ranges, spending 2006 in a similar role at the Murray Bushrangers, based in Wangaratta, before returning to coach Under-15s and Under-18s at the Ranges in 2007.
Both clubs competed in the TAC Cup (now the Coates Talent League), the premier AFL junior competition from which the best junior players are drafted to league clubs.
In a statement provided to the ABC, an AFL spokesman said: “The AFL takes these matters extremely seriously and is not aware of any reports or complaints of misconduct to the AFL regarding Mark Heaney from 2005.”
Former Eastern Ranges players who spoke to the ABC said Heaney was a likeable man who “ticked all the boxes” as a role model.
His role with the Ranges involved a lot of out-of-hours work supporting players, including driving them to and from training and games, and making home visits. He was also responsible for administrating the AFL’s AusKick clinics in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Former Ranges head coach John Lamont told the ABC he’d been unaware of the charges Heaney faced in 2013 and was shocked by Hayes’s allegations against Heaney. Lamont said that neither he nor then-Ranges development manager Ian Flack had received complaints about Heaney during or after his time with the Ranges.
‘The role is on the AFL payroll, but the extra effort Mark puts in outside his paid position is greatly appreciated’
Heaney’s time as a Melbourne-based football coach ended in January of 2009, when the then-37-year-old was appointed as the AFL’s regional manager for Northern New South Wales.
Heaney was to play a crucial role in the AFL’s strategy to expand into rugby league heartlands and convert junior sporting stars from other codes into Australian Rules players.
Heaney would eventually manage an expanding small team of development officers whose job was to increase participation in the AFL’s entry-level AusKick program, support the expansion of junior leagues and drive school participation.
“The development officers have got a pretty good plan set-up for the first term so we’re getting into the schools,” Heaney told the Coffs Coast Advocate in 2009.
“The big thing this year is to make sure that the work in the schools flows onto kids playing with the clubs.”
At the time, Heaney was roundly praised for commitment to the AFL cause. “New AFL regional manager Mark Heaney is already making his mark on the local game with his enthusiasm and organisation,” said one local newspaper editorial.
“The role is on the AFL payroll, but the extra effort Mark puts in outside his paid position is greatly appreciated.”
Grafton, one of the regional hubs in Heaney’s territory, soon experienced “unprecedented interest” in AFL AusKick, with participation increasing by 300 per cent.
In addition to his administrative duties, Heaney was soon coaching players in the AFL’s NSW/ACT Talent Academy and Northern Heat junior representative teams whose players vied for state selection from Under 14s through to Under 18s
It was also Heaney’s job to coordinate school visits by AFL players and coaches from the Sydney Swans, and Heaney used his links to Hawthorn football club to offer a select band of junior players from Coffs Harbour the opportunity to train with the Hawks.
“Probably that’s been driven by Mark Heaney who obviously has got some links with the Hawks as he used to coach with the Eastern Ranges back there so we’re only too happy to help out where we can,” a Hawthorn assistant said at the time.
‘Heaney and Roos will form a working partnership’
In 2011, Heaney’s crucial role in the AFL’s expansion plans was cemented with the establishment of a Sydney Swans North Coast academy in Coffs Harbour.
Launched by then-Swans coach Paul Roos and Adam Goodes in February of that year, it aimed to fast track the development of junior players in Heaney’s north-coast zone. It would offer opportunities to local boys aged between 9 and 18 and Heaney would be in charge of coaching.
“Heaney and Roos will form a working partnership which will inject a massive pool of coaching knowledge into schools and junior clubs,” said a local newspaper report of the time.
“The profile and prestige of the academy will be enormous,” Heaney added.
“Exactly the same coaching they get in the city is coming here … the Swans are already looking at two local kids, along with another nine who could easily end up on their list. It will go into overdrive even more when the academy starts up.
“The response, the build-up and enormous profile AFL is getting is incredible.”
In a response to questions from the ABC, a spokesperson from the Sydney Swans confirmed “the Swans Academy employed Mark Heaney on a casual basis from 2011-2013”.
Within a year, the first of Heaney’s academy players had graduated to the Swans reserves team and Heaney was also overseeing AFL Combine showcases for league recruiters.
Early in 2013, when the AFL and Heaney’s rise in northern New South Wales continued apace, the Sydney Swans senior squad spent part of a week-long training camp offering coaching tips to Coffs Coast school children.
“The opportunity to have a kick about with a premiership player is something any footy fan would love to do,” Heaney said in 2013.
“Every time the Swans have made the trip up here it has seen more kids signing on to play which is great for the sport.”
‘That is a disturbing thing’
In mid-May of 2013, the north-coast AFL community was rocked by media reports of Heaney’s arrest following a four-week covert investigation by the New South Wales State Crime Command child exploitation internet unit.
The 42-year-old soon appeared in Coffs Harbour local court, charged with using a carriage service to groom a person under 16 and four counts of using a carriage service to transmit indecent communication to persons under 16.
Former Geelong premiership captain Tom Harley, then general manager of AFL New South Wales/ACT, immediately stood Heaney down pending the outcome of court proceedings and called a community forum in Coffs Harbour for 100 concerned parents.
The AFL released a statement saying it was “shocked and appalled by the allegations” and appealed for further information from parents of players who’d played under Heaney.
Likewise, police appealed for more witnesses in Heaney’s case.
“Because he is so well known, that is a disturbing thing in relation to this investigation and that’s why police have acted quickly yesterday in arresting him, because of his access to children,” said State Crime Command child exploitation internet unit team leader Detective Sergeant Richard Long.
But the news caused barely a ripple in Melbourne, with Heaney’s coaching colleagues and former players from Eastern Ranges and Murray Bushrangers only hearing of the charges years later.
Likewise in July 2014, when shocking details of the case emerged after Heaney pleaded guilty of one count of using a carriage service to groom a person under 16 years and sentenced to 18 months in jail with a minimum term of 12 months.
In its statement to the ABC, Sydney Swans confirmed that Heaney was “stood down immediately when the charges came to light”.
“We take these matters extremely seriously and the AFL Integrity Department was involved from the outset.”
In response to questions from the ABC, the AFL would not comment on the findings of its Integrity Department investigation.
‘Are you tossing right now?’
The Court heard Heaney had contacted a 13-year-old junior footballer via Facebook messenger and instigated a sexually explicit exchange that lasted until 4.30am.
Heaney sent the boy explicit images of himself, including one in which Heaney was lying naked with his hand over his penis, although Heaney soon urged the child to delete the pictures.
The boy immediately alerted his parents and soon Heaney was unknowingly chatting to an undercover officer from New South Wales Police.
In the chats that followed with the undercover officer, Heaney suggested he and the boy should compare penis sizes. Heaney also suggested a meeting at a hotel he frequented, where he said the pair could have an ejaculation contest.
“Sticking with the sporting theme, I think we’ll set up a target and see who can shoot the furthest,” Heaney said.
When the undercover officer asked whether there would be physical contact between them, Heaney replied: “We’re both footballers, mate. We can handle a bit.”
Further messages probed for details of the boy’s previous sexual experiences and in one, Heaney asked “Are you tossing right now?”
After accepting that Heaney did not intend to follow through with the suggested hotel room meeting, Justice Wells sent Heaney to prison until July 2015.
Having “withdrawn emotionally” since Heaney had bombarded him with sexual advances, the boy, according to his father, would not play football again.
‘A safe, welcoming and inclusive environment’
In a statement to the ABC, an AFL spokesman said: “At the time of Mark Heaney facing charges in 2013, which he was subsequently jailed for, AFL NSW/ACT publicly commented on the matter given Heaney’s employment history in football.
“AFL NSW/ACT acknowledged the appalling nature of the charges, offered support and counselling to affected families and individuals and urged anyone with further information to contact police. The AFL confirmed that appropriate background checks were conducted at the time.”
The statement said the AFL “has a system in place that enables anyone involved in the game, currently or historically, to make a report related to any allegations that may contravene the AFL’s rules and policies, including sexual or physical assault”.
“The AFL offers wellbeing support to anyone who has been involved in the game at any level, past or present, and has a team dedicated to integrity, security and child safeguarding matters,” the statement said.
“The AFL is committed to providing participants at all levels of the game, from community football through to the elite game, with a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment and is extremely sympathetic and willing to support anyone who has endured wrongdoing in the game at any stage.”