Child abuse inquiry: Finally victims get the hearing they deserve
Charges likely as 300 prepare to give evidence
Criminal prosecutions are likely as a result of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which is now under way.
If a prosecution is imminent, the inquiry will go into closed session in order to avoid prejudicing a fair trial, the inquiry's chair Sir Anthony Hart stressed yesterday.
In his opening comments, Sir Anthony said that more than 300 men and women will give "deeply upsetting" evidence about the abuse they suffered, which "in some cases they have never spoken to their closest family about".
Yesterday saw the opening day of the Government investigation into claims of sexual and physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect in 14 residential care homes in Northern Ireland from 1922 to 1995.
It will be the most wide-ranging investigation of allegations of institutional child abuse in the UK to date, at an estimated cost of £19m.
While stressing that the inquiry was not a trial and had not the authority for prosecutions, convictions or to pay compensation, he said that those who give evidence "will have the satisfaction of knowing that their experiences are being listened to and investigated".
He added that between now and June 2015, the "unique" inquiry would try to establish if abuse in children's homes was systemic before being required to make its report to the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2016.
If the panel thought there was sufficient evidence for a prosecution, it would be passed to the PSNI and then on to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
However, the inquiry's senior counsel Christine Smith QC described the inquiry as a "human story about how a society treated its most vulnerable members – its children".
"This inquiry, both through the work of the acknowledgement forum and these public hearings, is giving a voice to those who feel the system let them down," Ms Smith said.
"By examining how vulnerable children living in children's homes between 1922 and 1995 were treated, this inquiry will examine the soul of Northern Ireland in that period," she added.
Acknowledging that many victims of abuse "have waited years for this day to come", Ms Smith added, "abuse in childhood leaves a legacy which can destroy their adulthood as well".
In setting out the background to the inquiry, the barrister stressed that social attitudes over the decades, particularly in regards to the treatment of children, had greatly changed.
In defining the term abuse, Ms Smith said that the inquiry will hear evidence of the "most heinous sexual abuse, to the constant belittling of a child".
Speaking of some of the evidence already heard by the inquiry's private and confidential acknowledgement forum, Ms Smith quoted one of the survivors saying: "I may have been a small child, but I still had a voice."
Ms Smith also talked about the "painstaking" nature of compiling the written evidence for the inquiry, which currently stands at 97,000 pages.
She added that some of the institutions gave the inquiry written documentation in a "piecemeal and disorganised fashion".
It was also revealed that three of the initial applicants, two from Australia, had since died after contacting the forum.
Mike Nesbitt MLA, chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Historical Institutional Abuse committee, attended the opening day to show support for Savia, the Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse group.
He said: "The most poignant thing to hear from Sir Anthony was that some people are not here because they have passed on and some are not here because they are physically incapable of being here. It's says all you need to know about how long it is taken to get here."
'Now there is light at the end of the tunnel'... four survivors tell their disturbing stories
Margaret McGuckin was abused at a Sisters of Nazareth orphanage in Belfast from the age of three. She is now a campaigner for Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia).
When she was three, 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 kept in the home until the age of 11. Margaret fled after eight years during which she suffered severe beatings, humiliations, having her hair washed with boiling water and living in constant fear.
During one attack she said a nun battered her backwards and into a cupboard in which she was then locked.
She said she was regularly beaten with bamboo canes and belts.
She said the children were "child slaves", forced to scrub floors, windows and walls, "like something out of a (Charles) Dickens book".
The family never recovered and remained detached. One brother was sexually abused and was recently admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
"Nobody has ever listened to us but now, for the first time, they are.
"Everybody's listening, and it's lovely, just lovely," she said.
"We're important now. I know how much this is costing and what it takes but finally we are being heard.
"Many believed this would never happen, they felt they couldn't speak out for themselves. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
"We trust this inquiry and we know what happened won't be allowed to fizzle out.
"I think justice will be done and we hope they remember us. We can't be put through any more.
"Many survivors couldn't work as they didn't believe they belonged in the workplace, they didn't feel part of society.
"They couldn't have relationships because of lack of love and care and emotion at that time, we never fitted in.
"Maybe now, at this age, we can move to change that."
Kate was just seven when her life was irrevocably changed.
Unable to cope with caring for four children after his wife left him, Kate's father took his family from Glasgow to Northern Ireland. While he sought refuge in a local men's hostel, he probably thought that by placing his children in a variety of Catholic-run religious institutions, he was doing his best for them under difficult circumstances.
The youngest, Kate and another sibling went to Nazareth House, where her years of torture and neglect began.
The two sisters were kept separate from each other, unable to give any loving family support.
Now in her 50s, the Derry woman suffered the full range of abuse, from being sexually assaulted by a priest most weekends, to being forced to lift excrement out of blocked toilets by a nun and being made to stand up at breakfast time in front of everyone else for bed-wetting.
The priest gradually groomed her, then expected her to receive Holy Communion the next day in atonement for her sins. Kate, wringing her hands constantly, also tells of the downward spiral her life took afterwards, when she eventually got out of the care system at the age of 15.
She has serious problems with drink, drugs and depression and has been suicidal over the years.
However, one of the most debilitating hurts caused to her was the constant claims by one particular nun that her "badness" had caused the breakdown of her parents' marriage.
Michael says: "I was constantly getting beaten by the nuns and if they couldn't do it they got the older boys who left the place to come up and they would fix you. It's very important to let people in the outside world know exactly what has been going on behind closed doors and people didn't believe it.
"They didn't believe nuns or brothers could do these things."
Jon, who was abused at Nazareth House in Derry and St Joseph's Home, Termonbacca, is now a member of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia).
"I can look back now and say, yeah, you can talk about resources, you can talk about staffing levels and stuff like that, but for me the truth was it was an institution incapable of dealing with the number of children that had been placed there," he said.
"There was no oversight, no monitoring.
"This is a search for truth. It's a search for recognition. A search for responsibility.
"It's the time for Government to acknowledge its failings and the institutions certainly to acknowledge their failings."
Children packed off to Australia to be tracked down
One of the key features of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry will be uncovering the Government-run child migration scheme which sent hundreds of children from residential homes to Australia.
It was revealed yesterday that only half of the witnesses from Australia have been interviewed and further interviews will take place later this year.
The 14 institutions investigated in the inquiry will be examined in modules, starting off with the Sisters of Nazareth-run homes, St Joseph's at Termonbacca and Nazareth House in Bishop Street, Londonderry. This will be followed by evidence from men who have complained about abuse suffered during their time at Rubane House, Kircubbin, in Co Down, run by the De La Salle institution.
Then the child migration scheme will be under the spotlight, to uncover why and how children, many of them abused in residential care, were sent to other care homes in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.
The scheme, run by the UK Government in association with organisations such as the Sisters of Nazareth, also sent children throughout the Common- wealth.
The fourth module of evidence will be heard about the Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge children's homes in south Belfast, as it was chiefly involved in the child migration scheme.
The other known modules will be Barnardo's Sharonmore Project, Newtownabbey and Macedon, then the Kincora Boys Home, Belfast, and Lissue Children's Unit, Lisburn, followed by St Patrick's Training School, Belfast.
Each module will be preceded with an opening statement from the inquiry's senior counsel Christine Smith QC, who will outline the nature and scope of the allegations, along with an opening statement from the institution's legal representative.
All known complaints against the institution or any staff member or other adult involved have been made known to them ahead of any appearance at the inquiry.
Ms Smith will continue with her opening address today by describing the social background for the period over which the abuse took place in order for the inquiry panel to understand the historical context.