Abuse victims across Northern Ireland are to launch a landmark legal case against several religious orders, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Decades after suffering horrific abuse at the hands of nuns and priests in church-run industrial schools and orphanages a growing number of victims are now turning to the courts for retribution and closure. They are also planning legal action against the government bodies that were responsible for child welfare at the time, for failing to protect them.
The move comes as the Northern Ireland Executive faces growing pressure to conduct a full assessment of the level of physical and emotional child abuse within institutes run by the religious orders.
So far the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has failed to give any public commitment to such an investigation despite calls from a number of politicians and members of the public for a Ryan-style inquiry in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP is to lodge a motion next month calling on the Executive “to conduct an assessment of the level of abuse and to provide all appropriate support for those victims that come forward.”
With Northern Ireland omitted from the Ryan Report, victims here are still waiting for an adequate response from either the church or state.
Solicitor Joe Rice, from John J Rice Solicitors, told the Belfast Telegraph that a number of victims have now decided to take action themselves and are seeking advice on launching legal proceedings against the orders responsible and the government bodies charged with child welfare at the time.
Mr Rice said that ever since the publication of the Ryan Report his offices in Armagh, Ards and south Belfast have been inundated with victims seeking justice.
“This is something that is beginning to gather momentum. We have been instructed by clients in Northern Ireland who have been victims of abuse, both in state institutions and in care homes similar to those in the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (The Ryan Report) in the Republic of Ireland. We have noticed, over the past few months, in our three offices, people coming in with complaints in relation to physical abuse, neglect and sex abuse in various institutes. These complaints of abuse have not been properly investigated by the authorities in Northern Ireland. All the institutions would have been under the inspectorate of the old Stormont government at the time.
“We have started to correlate information in common with some of these cases with a view to issuing proceedings, not only against the institutions but also the government departments that would have been responsible at the time. We have also placed an advert to try and stimulate people to come forward in relation to certain institutions.
“It seems to me that those people subject to abuse in Northern Ireland have not been well served by the authorities and the government agencies set up to protect them. It is one of these things that has not been properly dealt with in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Rice would not say how many victims have come forward or name the institutes involved, but said the complaints are not restricted to institutes in the Belfast area. The SDLP’s Alex Attwood said that his party is determined to push for a full assessment into institutional abuse in Northern Ireland to be carried out as quickly as possible.
“These people were among the most vulnerable in society,” he said.
Mr Attwood added: “It may have taken nine years for the Ryan report but we would like to think there is a different culture now because of the experience of the rest of the island. We would like to think that a new future investigation would be much more concentrated so that people would get results of inquiries quicker. We need to put appropriate mechanisms in place to help these people. It is hard to assess the scale of this which is why we are calling for this assessment.”
DUP MP David Simpson said that while there have been individual cases brought against people accused of abusing children in their care in Northern Ireland there is a real need for a serious investigation into the scale of the problem of child abuse by religious orders, or other care institutions in Northern Ireland.
He added: “The Ryan Report showed the extent of the problem in the Republic of Ireland.
“I believe we need to establish the facts surrounding just what went on in Northern Ireland. Many lives have been ruined by the child abuse inflicted by those who were in a position of trust. We need to establish how many.
“This was a gross betrayal perpetrated by those were to supposed to be caring for children. It was also a shameful failure on the part of the authorities who placed them into care only to abandon them to their fate.”
I lived in fear of the next beating, the next humiliation
Clutching an old black and white photograph, Margaret McGuckin points to a sad looking young girl whose face is turned away from the camera.
“Look how sad she is. That is me. I was three-years-old and as far as I can remember I had just arrived at Nazareth House girls’ home on the Ormeau Road. I think it was 1958. It hurts when I see how sad that little girl is,” said Margaret.
Margaret, her sister and two brothers were placed in the care of the Nazareth Sisters when her parents broke up and her father struggled to raise four young children alone. Margaret was three years old and was kept in the home until the age of 11.
“My time there was just hell. There was just real coldness in there, no love was ever displayed and that is so difficult and confusing for a young child who has just been separated from her family. They wouldn’t even let me speak to my sister which might have helped. Anytime I saw her through the railings in the segregated playground, we were pulled away from each other if we tried to talk or hold hands.
“We were treated like child slaves being made to scrub the floors, windows and walls. It was like something out of a Dickens’ book. We were just little children and we were on our hands and knees scrubbing floors. I can still remember the smell of that orange wax and carbolic soap.
“My whole life there was lived in fear — fear of the next beating, the next humiliation. I was made to feel worthless, that I was a bad person and I kept those beliefs with me my whole life. I remember one day being beaten the whole way to a cupboard by one of the Sisters. When she got me there she kept beating me with a stick and telling me I was evil and a liar and the worst type of person that walked the earth. When I cried she battered me even more, telling me to stop crying. When she left me in the cupboard I cried out for someone to come and take me away so many times, but no one came to rescue me.
“No kindness was ever shown to us and anything that might have brought me some comfort was immediately taken away. I can recall my father buying me a beautiful yellow jumper
with a teddy bear on it, but it was taken from me never to be seen again. It may not have seemed important to them, but to me it was a reminder that I once had a family who loved me.”
Margaret, who is now 52, said when she was 11-years-old she was inexplicably told to leave the home, maybe because her father was no longer able to pay money for her keep there.
“I wasn’t prepared for the outside world. I didn’t take to many people because I always felt so worthless and ashamed. When I went to secondary school, I remember standing at a wall in the playground seeing others sniggering at me. It must have been the way I was, I was just looking at a wall. I always felt embarrassed and ashamed, like I was dirty and unclean. That was the scene set for the rest of my life.
“What happened to me in Nazareth House affected my job positions, my friendships and relationships with a wide range of people. I always felt unloved, ugly, rejected, dirty, evil, no good. I have hated myself so much because I was led to believe that I was a monster of some sort. It has only been this year that I am finally turning my life around. For the first time ever, I feel as if I am in control.”
Margaret is now leading a campaign to have the religious orders publicly recognise and apologise for the abuse thousands of children in Northern Ireland suffered while in their care. “What happened in these places was recognised in the Republic, but not here and we want that same recognition,” she added.
“I used to walk around filled with so much anger and sadness, but there is more joy and laughter in me now. I look in the mirror now and I am smiling. I want other victims to feel the same.”
The Ryan report told the nightmare story of violence and sexual abuse suffered by a generation of some of the most vulnerable children in Ireland.
It painted a chilling picture of a severely dysfunctional church and state in Ireland — a church that protected and tolerated its members’ actions, and a state, charged to inspect the children's’ homes and schools, that failed to safeguard the young victims.
It took nine years to compile the 2,600-page report, which proposed 21 ways the Irish government could recognise past wrongs, including building a permanent memorial, providing counselling to victims and improving Ireland's current child protection services.
It provided some level of closure and justice for the thousands who were sent as children to Ireland’s austere network of industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels from the 1930s until the last church-run facilities shut in the 1990s.
But in Northern Ireland no investigation has ever been launched and the problem here remains locked in the past.
Stories of abuse at homes like St Patrick’s Home in west Belfast, run by the De La Salle Brothers, Termonbacca in Londonderry and Nazareth Lodge children’s home in east Belfast, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, are becoming more and more prevalent.
There is no longer any doubt that vulnerable children were subjected to horrifying violence and abuse while in the care of church and state run homes and schools in Northern Ireland, but a full probe into the level of abuse is necessary.
The issue is not going to go away until there is formal recognition of the extent of the abuse and a public apology from the religious orders and the government institutions that failed vulnerable children for decades. The victims who suffered in silence for so many years deserve nothing less.