Robert Black cover-up is just piling insult upon injury
A week after child sex killer Robert Black was cremated his victims' relatives are still none the wiser about his final resting place. They deserve better than a Stormont-sanctioned cloak of secrecy, says Eilis O'Hanlon.
For the past 26 years the families of Robert Black's victims have uncomplainingly footed the bill for the Scottish serial killer's upkeep. Through their taxes they paid for the food in his mouth and the clothes on his back; for the bed on which he slept and the blankets that kept him warm.
Not least they paid the wages of prison staff who ensured that he remained safe from harm as he served time on 12 charges of abduction and murder, including that of nine-year-old Jennifer Cardy in Ballinderry in August 1981.
Since no one in the notorious paedophile killer's own family seemingly wanted his body back following his death at the age of 68 last month, his victims' relatives even helped, albeit unknowingly at the time, to pay for the Maghaberry prisoner's cremation at Roselawn, on the outskirts of Belfast, last week. Though, had it not been for a tip-off to the Belfast Telegraph, the ultimate fate of this man suspected of as many as 16 murders might never have been known.
None of that, however, is deemed sufficient to entitle them to an answer to one simple question: what will happen to his ashes now?
Their money was good enough to pay for his well-being in life, but not to know the truth now that he is gone.
Black died days before police in England were finally due to charge him with the murder of 13-year-old Genette Tate, who vanished on her paper round in Devon in 1978 and whose body has never been found.
Her 73-year-old father John has asked the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) what is to be done with Black's remains. To no avail.
Even the fact that Black was cremated in a secret ceremony at Roselawn last Friday, at a claimed cost to the public purse of £1,000, had to be dragged reluctantly from the Northern Ireland authorities.
"Why aren't my questions being answered?" wondered John, reasonably enough.
"It does feel like some State cover-up.
"I am not being told the truth, which adds insult to injury."
Ukip MLA David McNarry has added his voice to the growing chorus of criticism over this wall of silence.
He said: "I've no idea why the Prison Service has been so keen to protect this serial child killer. Maybe they should give a bit more thought to his victims' families instead."
Sounds simple. It ought to be simple.
Decisions should always be taken with the interests of victims' families in the forefront. Too often that's not what happens. Instead, victims are an afterthought and their families regarded as a nuisance.
It's another example of the way in which those who've suffered at the hands of evil are forced to fight for every human consideration that ought to be willingly extended to them by right.
John Tate isn't the first. It took Sara Payne, the mother of eight-year-old Sarah, who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by Roy Whiting in Sussex, England, in 2000, eight years before it was made easier for parents to discover if convicted sex offenders such as Whiting were living nearby.
It would be appalling if the families of Black's victims now faced a similarly prolonged struggle for justice.
It's understandable, as John Tate himself acknowledges, for prison authorities to be concerned at the possible consequences of revealing sensitive information about figures of justifiable public loathing.
Jimmy Savile's grave was vandalised after the extent of his crimes against children became known, and the undertakers in Antrim who took on the onerous task of organising Black's cremation after others refused have already become the innocent target of uncalled for retaliation.
It's also possible to empathise with the authorities in not knowing what to do. It is, as a spokesman for NIPS noted with considerable understatement, a "tricky problem".
The way to deal with the problem, though, is not to brush it under the carpet and hope it goes away, but to face it head on in a consistent, measured and - crucially - open manner.
No one wanted Black. His body in those circumstances became simply another property of the State, to be disposed of as deemed fit. It's still possible to make the right decision, because his ashes remain in storage, but it has to be taken by the right people. NIPS has indicated that the final decision may rest with prison chaplain Rev Rodney Cameron, and that, once a decision has been made, "there will be no disclosures on that".
It is unfair to expect a chaplain to make such a momentous decision alone, especially when he is constrained in what choices he can make and what he can reveal about them afterwards by secret rules, which he has no part in making or enforcing.
This decision needs to be taken at the proper level. If that means Justice Minister David Ford making a ruling, or Prison Service director general Sue McAllister, so be it.
At least they can be held accountable if their determinations prove controversial.
The final say has to lie with someone on an appropriate pay grade, who can then either tell families where Black's ashes are, or explain directly why their wishes are being rejected.
Some might call it foolishness to worry about where the ashes of a deceased man are scattered. Dead is dead. Black cannot hurt any more children.
But that is not our call to make. If victims' families feel strongly about it, those feelings must be respected. They deserve to know the rationale behind decisions that affect them deeply, not least because they have not only paid for Black's upkeep all these years, but also for the wages of politicians.
The least they can do is step up and take ownership of the issue instead of batting it back to a prison chaplain.
Whatever decision is taken, it should also reflect the feelings of the wider community. The city of Boston made it clear that it did not want the body of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev interred in the city he attacked. The entire state of Massachussetts eventually declared a similar wish.
Northern Ireland is the resting place of enough monsters without adding the ashes of this malign stranger to the tally.