Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

A dark chapter we cannot ignore

It is no surprise that some abuse victims are planning to take legal action against religious orders who ran industrial schools and orphanages in Northern Ireland.

Following the publication of the Ryan Report which found that rape, sexual molestation and abuse was endemic in Catholic run institutions in the Republic and that the civil authorities turned a blind eye to what went on, it was always going to be just a matter of time before similar allegations surfaced on this side of the border.

The image of the Catholic Church in Ireland had been severely dented long before the Ryan Report was published earlier this year. Large numbers of paedophile priests were unmasked and brought before the courts. These priests carried out their evil deeds in Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic, most often when serving in parishes throughout the country.

Now the question is whether young children who were in care in Catholic-run institutions in the province were also subjected to systematic abuse.

According to one solicitor, a number of people have been coming forward with allegations that they were abused while in church-run institutions and a test case is likely to be launched in the near future. At the same time the SDLP is to put forward a motion next month calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to investigate the issue of abuse.

This is a brave decision by a party that draws a lot of its support from traditional church-going Catholics. That the party feels compelled to put forward such a motion is surely an indication of its suspicions that abuse was more widespread in Northern Ireland than is commonly believed.

The party's motion will also call for appropriate support for victims who come forward. So far the Executive has resisted becoming involved in the issue, but the pending legal action and the SDLP motion means it can no longer duck the issue.

In a province that has seen countless inquiries into past events linked to the Troubles, there is a natural reticence about launching another expensive probe.

However, this issue covers the potential abuse of many vulnerable children. Any investigation, which could begin in a reasonably low key, low cost manner to gauge the possible extent of the problem, should cover all institutions where young people were held - not just those run by the Catholic Church.

It should also cover the action, or inaction, of the statutory authorities whose job it was to ensure that children were treated in a humane way and not subjected to any kind of abuse. As evidence is gathered, there may be a need for an inquiry along the lines of the one held in the Republic, but the intention initially should be simply to give victims a forum in which to present their grievances and to which those bodies responsible for running the various institutions can make their responses.

Whatever course of action is taken, it is evident that the issue of child abuse cannot be ignored or left simply to individuals taking action through the courts.

For every person brave enough to take such action, with its attendant publicity and potential costs, there would be many more unwilling to venture along such a route. All those who were abused need to have equal opportunity to have those crimes exposed and those responsible brought to book.

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