Why I need your help to uncover the painful truth
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry is committed to getting to the facts – however uncomfortable or unpalatable those facts might be, says Sir Anthony Hart
When the First Minister and Deputy First Minister announced the establishment of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, they emphasised their wish to set up a process which met the needs of victims and survivors.
While there is no doubt that many victims and survivors wanted this inquiry, that doesn't mean that the process of lifting the telephone to talk to my inquiry team is an easy one for all those potential witnesses who may wish to come forward.
That's why I have issued a renewed appeal for victims and survivors of institutional childhood abuse to contact the inquiry.
We recognise that, for many potential witnesses, speaking about their experiences will be very painful and traumatic. Indeed, some will not have told their closest relatives or friends about the abuse they suffered.
It's for this reason that we have taken every possible step to try to address their fears and to support them through the inquiry process.
One of the most important features of the inquiry is its acknowledgement forum. The forum is designed to provide a reassuring environment, where individuals can recount their experiences in a more relaxed setting than a statutory inquiry chamber.
If they prefer, individuals can talk in private to two forum panel members, rather than undergo the statutory inquiry process. Where potential witnesses opt to talk only to the forum panel, they can also be assured of confidentiality – except where they provide evidence of a possible crime.
In such an instance, both the inquiry and the forum are obliged to pass on any such information to the police.
To date, most of the 175 potential witnesses who have contacted the inquiry have opted to take part in both the forum panel and the statutory inquiry processes.
All those participating in either, or both, of these processes are offered the services of the inquiry's dedicated witness support officers.
Witness support officers provide emotional support to individuals while they recount their experiences to the forum, or when giving evidence to the inquiry.
In addition, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has said that it will set up a wider victims' support service to provide support and advice to victims and survivors before, during and after the inquiry.
We also try to provide any practical support which potential witnesses may require. For example, we'll reimburse all reasonable travel expenses. Indeed, members of the forum panel will, where necessary, travel to see a witness at a suitable location.
We have already commenced the initial stages of the inquiry's work. One key element is our three-person research and investigative team, which is carrying out a pro-active investigation.
The team is currently focusing on relevant documentation, including tens of thousands of documents of interest to the inquiry, which are held by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
The four members of the acknowledgement forum panel have also been interviewing victims and survivors.
So far, 89 individuals have recounted their experiences to the forum.
We hope to commence our statutory inquiry public hearings towards the end of this year.
The timetable provided for us by the Northern Ireland Executive stipulates that we should complete our report in just under three years' time, by January 2016.
The Executive has stated that an extension to the deadline might be permitted, if necessary. However, at present, I envisage that we will be able to complete our work within the existing timeframe.
While we want to ensure the most robust and comprehensive investigation possible, I am also conscious that some victims and survivors are anxious that the process should not become one which is drawn out unnecessarily. Many potential witnesses are now in their later years and would doubtless like to see the inquiry complete its report while they are still alive.
One issue for some observers has been the degree of independence, or otherwise, which the inquiry enjoys.
I can assure Belfast Telegraph readers that the inquiry is a truly independent and impartial one.
That independence is underlined by the fact that we will be publishing our own report. Moreover, while the Executive will have sight of the report shortly before publication, it has no legal right to intervene in any way to change what we have written.
Our primary aim is to uncover the truth about historical institutional childhood abuse in Northern Ireland, however uncomfortable and unpalatable that truth may be.
We want to speak to both victims and survivors of such abuse and to those who may have witnessed such abuse.
You may have experienced such abuse, you may have been a child who saw it happen, or perhaps you were a member of staff, or a visitor, who saw abuse, or signs of it.
If you believe that you can help us in any way, then please visit our website, or lift the phone and contact us.