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Kevin Magee on the trail of self-confessed Northern Ireland paedophile who was allowed to flee justice by RUC despite vile crimes

 

By Kevin Magee

Henry Clarke told police he had abused boys in Sixties and Seventies but was never prosecuted. BBC NI tracked him down to the frozen wastes of northern Canada, where he agreed to talk.

An expedition to the frozen lakes of Northern Canada is a long way to go to look for someone who may not be there. I had managed to find an address for Henry Clarke in a remote town on the edge of the great Canadian wilderness.

The only way to make sure he was the same man we wanted to talk to was to go there in person and knock on his door.

If he was hiding, he'd picked a good place.

The abuse he'd carried out on three children in Northern Ireland in the early Sixties and Seventies, and the fact that he'd never been prosecuted, had remained buried over the years.

The recent Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry heard that a man who worked at the Bawnmore care home had confessed to police in 1985 that he had sexually abused children but escaped justice. He could not be named until the BBC successfully applied to have his anonymity lifted.

Once that restriction was gone, his name appeared on documents on the HIA's website, and I began searching for the man.

The documents revealed he'd emigrated to Canada in the early Eighties and had become a pastor.

It transpired that a small church in Canada had posted sermons by a pastor called Henry Clarke online.

Could it be the same man? I listened to hours of his sermons and references "to life back in the country", and his dad meeting him off the Liverpool boat when he was in the RAF suggested he was the right person.

Then I found an address for him, and days later the BBC head of radio, news and online Adam Smyth, lead cameraman Donal Hamilton and I were on a plane to North America following the story.

We drove for hundreds of miles north from Edmonton, where the roads got narrower and the snow heavier, with ice lakes to our right and left.

All the while I kept thinking what if I've found a different Henry Clarke? Or it's him but he's away on holiday?

I didn't know the answer until I knocked the door of the address in my notebook.

A woman opened the door and I asked for Henry Clarke.

She invited me in and a small man in a dressing gown appeared. I recognised his voice from the online sermons, explained who I was, and where I was from. Even in the fading light I could see his face change colour.

Rather than have a long conversation with him I handed him a pre-prepared letter requesting an interview, and asked him to call me back.

This helped avoid a conversation in front of his wife, as I didn't want to be the first to tell her her husband was a paedophile.

The following day he phoned me.

He said: "I got the shock of my life when I read the letter. My wife and I read it together. She knows all about this. Yes, I am the man you are looking for. You know where I live. We'd like to talk to you. Come on round."

We shook hands when he opened the door. For years in this job as a reporter I've always told myself never to judge anyone.

But as a father of boys myself, I couldn't help but think of the disturbing allegations against him.

We spoke for more than an hour and he agreed to a recorded interview. Why? Perhaps he felt he couldn't hide it any longer. The BBC in Belfast was on his doorstep.

He'd been named as a child abuser through the witness documents published on the HIA's website. Perhaps he wanted to explain that he'd confessed in the past, and it was the authorities that had failed to act.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone admit to child abuse in a television interview before, and certainly not someone who hasn't been convicted of it.

Each time I replayed the interview in an editing suite back in BBC Broadcasting House in Ormeau Avenue, it didn't feel any less shocking, as he repeated what he told the RUC when he was interviewed on his birthday in 1985.

"I admitted I had interfered with a boy at Bawnmore (hostel), and one at Firmount Hostel and then, at a later date, I omitted to mention a boy at Conway and I wrote a letter to the RUC, when I returned to Canada, I wrote a letter to them, and told them that I had missed telling them about this other boy, and I felt at that point in time there would be consequences for my admission."

What did he think would happen?

"I'm not sure, my wife and I both thought that I probably would finish up going to prison for what I'd done. In fact, when we were in NI on holiday the RUC did seize my Canadian and my British passports, so we were expecting something."

The HIA papers show the RUC decided not to tell the Canadian authorities of his admissions because he hadn't actually been convicted of any offences.

He said he had not abused since the early Seventies and says, without trying to detract from what he did, it was almost 50 years ago. It may be, but not for one of his victims.

I found the child he'd abused from Bawnmore when I returned from Canada.

His name is Billy Brown, and with the help of my colleague Kevin Sharkey, I tracked him down and showed him the interview.

After a childhood where he was abused in a system that was supposed to look after him, he had a very disrupted and often dysfunctional life with bouts of homelessness laced with alcoholism.

On the subject of Henry Clarke, Billy Brown deserves to have the last word.

"Your life's hell - people say you'll forget about it. But you'll never forget about it," he said.

"I'm coming 61 and I still have the nightmares. But now I have a face I can put to the shadows."

He added: "I was that child, and I don't know how it came about. Why me? Why was it in his head to pick me, to go and ask me to go to his house.

"He was in his own mother and father's house, and for him to get in beside me and do what he did..."

Billy says his abuser should never have been allowed to reach Canada.

"Why should I have to live this hell on my own, and me the victim?"

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