Belfast Telegraph

Breaking the silence: Fermanagh's child abuse victims speak out

Scores of people from across Co Fermanagh have alleged they were targeted by paedophiles. Tomorrow, for the first time, they tell their stories in their own voices. Journalist Rodney Edwards on the making of a harrowing radio documentary

Journalist Rodney Edwards, whose documentary will air tomorrow on Radio Ulster
Journalist Rodney Edwards, whose documentary will air tomorrow on Radio Ulster
David Sullivan
John McElholm

By Rodney Edwards

A mist hangs over Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh like a blanket. John looks nervously out through the window of his car as the sunlight dances on the ripples of the water. He lets out a sigh. He knew he'd be back one day, 30 years on. This is that moment.

Autumn will soon strip the trees in this part of Enniskillen of their leaves. The flowers dotted along the roadside at Dolan's Ring near the main Belfast Road will soon lose their scent. The days will be reduced with darkness.

It is a stunning, picture-perfect view but it masks a horrifying past in which John (not his real name) was sexually abused by his school bus driver in this very spot. That torment will not cease, even when the seasons change. John's heart races that little faster.

The 46-year-old was repeatedly raped by ex-RAF man David Sullivan, who would be murdered in 1998 and his body found buried in a bog 18 months later with his remains foraged and scattered by foxes among the mountains above Belcoo. He was killed, it is believed, because he was part of a paedophile ring that preyed on innocent children like John. The 51-year-old's killer has never been caught.

"You can imagine just February or March at eight or nine o'clock at night there wouldn't be a sinner here," said John, his voice quivering as he looks towards an area of hedgerow, next to a jetty which overlooks the shores of the lough.

"This is where I first got abused," he said with a pause. "I always thought it was bigger." Of course, as a 12-year-old everything looked bigger.

John has returned to the spot where he was abused for the first time for a documentary I have been making for BBC Radio Ulster which has been produced by Elaine Dunseath.

He is one of more than 60 people who have come forward to The Impartial Reporter since March to allege to having been sexually abused as children.

In total, claims have been made about more than 60 men and two women as the PSNI investigates, having set up a special taskforce. But there has yet to be one arrest.

We sit at the scene in silence as he switches off the engine and surveys the area. He breathes heavily. Elaine asks him if he is okay.

"Emm; I have never done drugs but I'd imagine if you were ever trying to describe a bad trip this would be it," he said. There was another sigh.

He would be abused time and time again, usually aboard Sullivan's Ulsterbus.

But he wouldn't talk about it - not even to his wife - until he shared his story with me three decades later.

It all began when I received an email late one Saturday night.

It read: "I would be prepared to tell you about my experiences during the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties on the condition of anonymity.

"Believe it or not, I have never, ever revealed this to a single person. The content of your first article resonated with me when the person who was abused said that he hoped that someone else would come forward."

His story caused shockwaves across the country as he singlehandedly lifted the lid on a murky secret about a man who was entrusted to bring children to school. But John would wait until the night before the Impartial Reporter hit news stands before telling his wife of 30 years.

"Even after I'd spoken to you and I know it wasn't coming out in the paper on a Thursday, I kept putting it off and off and off. And it literally got to the Wednesday night before it had to come out and I had to say to my wife, and I had to actually say this is what happened to me. I never told anybody about it. I spent 30 years probably running from this."

It was a hugely powerful moment that not only changed his life in an instant, but the lives of very many others who found the strength to share their stories, not just with me but with specialist detectives.

Sara (not her real name) was another alleged victim who broke her silence to claim she had been abused by a number of Orangemen about 40 years ago. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about the alleged abuse she faced inside and outside a rural Orange hall.

Sitting in her kitchen drinking her first coffee of the day, she reflects on a life that saw her hit rock-bottom, including multiple suicide attempts and an addiction to alcohol.

"For years I couldn't find anybody to listen. And now everybody wants to know and it's… honestly I am waiting for someone to wake me up and tell me it's all a dream," she said as the sound of dreamcatchers flutter above the open window. Closing her eyes she recalls the abuse she said she tried hard to forget. The agony of those memories is etched across her face.

"It felt like there were about 10 octopuses clambering all over you and they were grabbing at your clothes, my hair, trying to get my clothes off, they would have removed some other clothes, or they would just have taken down their trousers. I was caught, so I just had to give in."

Her story sparked responses from other alleged victims claiming they too had faced similar experiences.

She believes there is now an awakening in Fermanagh.

"We are taking the scab off a wound, a wound that is full of all the rotten, dirty germs and scum and the filth that has been buried in there for years and years and we are gently now pulling the scab off and we are revealing this poison, this toxin that has been running through our society here for all of my lifetime.

"It is going to join so many people together with a bond that nobody out there can understand," she said.

If that happens it will be because of her and all those alleged victims who have come forward.

In the small playground of St Paul's Primary School in Irvinestown the boisterous sound of children playing fills the air.

Children in blue uniforms squeeze in every last second of playtime. Inside, books of all colours and toys are propped up against the glass of the old cream and blue-coloured building.

It is an innocent scene. But inside the lives of very many were ruined by the former principal John McElholm, now deceased, who allegedly abused countless children, including Lynn (not her real name). The 54-year-old first admitted she had been abused by the former chairman of Fermanagh GAA in a handwritten letter to me six months ago.

"You were the second person probably that I disclosed it to, apart from my husband, really. It was just the way it happened, really, you know."

After she made her disclosure more than 20 people have done the same - all alleging that they too had been abused by a man regarded as a pillar of the community. Lynn believes the abuse was an open secret.

"Without doubt, it was common knowledge," she said.

More than 40 articles later and the sex abuse allegations continue to come in. This week a woman who says she was repeatedly raped by an Orangeman who also served as a church official said she alerted senior church figures to the allegations of child sex abuse but claims "they did nothing about it".

The 47-year-old, whose case was dropped by the Public Prosecution Service due to a lack of evidence, alleges that the sexual abuse began when she was still at school over 30 years ago and took place in several locations, including the alleged abuser's home.

But she says the Church of Ireland "turned a blind eye" to what she says was happening when she first contacted a minister about 13 years ago, having struggled to tell anyone about the claims.

"I feel as if he and others swept it under the carpet and now the man who abused me is still in the church and has never been reprimanded," said Jane (not her real name).

It is clear victims here have suffered not only from horrific abuse at the hands of those tasked with keeping them safe, but a lack of justice and accountability. And it is not unique to Fermanagh, it is an issue throughout Northern Ireland, suffered by Catholics, Protestants and those of other faiths and none. Now these brave men and women are finding their voices and after reading their stories for months we can now, finally, hear them in my documentary tomorrow.

Silent No More: Fermanagh's Abused Children, BBC Radio Ulster tomorrow, 12.30pm

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