Focus: Fundraising - Patron who speaks from experience

John McCarthy is the ideal spokesman for a torture charity, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

Many charities have celebrity patrons, but famous names such as journalist and former hostage John McCarthy, who is not only committed to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture but can also speak with authority about its work, are still rare.

"We get a lot out of the relationship," says Debra Lillistone-Squires, head of major gifts at the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture.

"People come to events if they know he is going to be there.

"He also gives a certain degree of respectability. People trust him and think he wouldn't be involved with us unless we were a responsible charity."

McCarthy was introduced to the charity by fellow hostage Brian Keenan and became patron in 1993, two years after being released by his Islamic Jihad captors in Lebanon.

He says: "When I first visited the charity's offices, I met some of the counsellors, many of whom have been victims of torture themselves. Most of them had had a far worse time of it than anything I experienced, which helped put things into perspective. I started giving talks - at first I found it emotional, but I felt that if I could use my experiences to help them somehow, it validated my experiences and gave them some special purpose."

McCarthy acts as a media spokesman, launches fundraising appeals, hosts receptions, makes after-dinner speeches and writes articles for the charity - that's a considerable time commitment by any celebrity patron's standards.

But it's his ability to talk candidly about the subject of torture that is perhaps his most valued contribution.

"Although he never describes himself as having been a victim of torture, he can talk about the issue in a way that would just be too traumatic for one of our clients," says Squires.

The relationship works, and has even grown stronger over the years because the charity is extremely careful about what it asks of McCarthy, according to Lillistone-Squires.

"We are careful not to bombard him with requests, so I have to choose when I feel it is worth bothering him," she says. "We also make sure that he only has to deal with two people - myself and our press officer - in order to avoid confusion."

McCarthy, who deliberately restricts the bulk of his charity work to the foundation, says he gets as much out of the relationship as the charity does.

"Not everyone is instantly sympathetic to the charity's work," he admits.

"Nobody has ever doubted what happened to me, but many of our clients are regarded as scroungers. It's sad, but that is often the attitude people have towards them.

"I'm pleased to be able to use my position to help break down some of the stereotypical images that people have," McCarthy adds. "If I can get just ten people out of 100 to question their preconceived beliefs, then I have achieved something."

indira.das-gupta@haynet.com.

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