The PSNI’s Det Supt Gary Reid is part of a team investigating a wave of recently emerged reports of historic child sex abuse
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has so far passed 18 files relating to allegations of historical child sexual abuse in Co Fermanagh to the Public Protection Service (PPS), The Sunday Independent can reveal.
Detectives say they are investigating 58 separate cases of alleged sexual abuse against 49 victims over many decades after the mostly unrelated claims emerged three years ago.
In a major investigation by the PSNI, 61 suspects have now been identified: 13 of whom are dead and six remain unknown — while two suspects are due to go on trial separately later this year.
Fourteen people have been arrested in Co Fermanagh but also in Derry and Antrim in connection with the claims that children were abused in faith, education, cultural, sports and business settings.
It has also emerged that PSNI officers have been working with their counterparts in An Garda Síochána in relation to some of the cases which may have a cross-border element.
Files sent to the PPS will now be examined, with Detective Superintendent Gary Reid of the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch saying he remained optimistic that this could ultimately lead to prosecutions.
“We are always hopeful. There are all those unknown variables, but we wouldn’t be pushing for prosecution if we weren’t hopeful for particular prosecutions,” he said.
There are four cases that remain under investigation by a special team set up after dozens of allegations were first reported by Enniskillen-based newspaper The Impartial Reporter.
However, the passage of time, he admits, has made investigating the claims troublesome.
“We do not have the same records as we do now to trawl through,” Det Supt Reid said.
A team of detectives assigned to the case have interviewed every one of the 49 victims who have come forward with many of them preferring to do an on-camera interview with officers.
Detectives meet in Enniskillen, Omagh and Belfast to discuss the status of the investigation and once a month, the force’s gold commander requests an update. Authorities, including the police, education and local council have been under pressure to reveal what they knew at the time in relation to the abuse of children in these mostly isolated cases.
Thirteen of the suspects are dead, including David Sullivan — a former Ulsterbus driver who allegedly abused schoolboys on his bus over 30 years ago but was never prosecuted.
Sullivan’s remains were found buried in a bog above Belcoo in 2000. He had been murdered two years previously. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for the 51-year-old’s brutal killing.
In 2019, the PSNI finally admitted it did know of claims the Enniskillen man was a child abuser.
At the time, Detective Superintendent Anne Marks told BBC News Northern Ireland that detectives were aware of two cases reported before Sullivan’s death “that would suggest that he did abuse children”.
But why was Sullivan, who reportedly abused more than a dozen children, never caught?
Det Supt Reid would not comment when asked about the former youth worker last week.
“I can’t really go into detail around him here, to be honest with you. We would need to see what we could actually disclose around that, with him being deceased and the impact that might have on any family members.”
Another deceased suspect is John McElholm who was regarded as a pillar of the Irvinestown community when he was principal at St Paul’s Primary School over 30 years ago.
But now it is claimed he abused that position by preying on innocent children and sexually abusing them where they should have been safe — in school.
Historical abuse is not just an issue in Co Fermanagh. Throughout Northern Ireland, historical child abuse referrals increased by 24pc in the past quarter, with average monthly referrals increasing to 75 referrals between July and September 2021, compared with 57 per month in 2020/21.
Even in the grip of a pandemic, the work of the Public Protection Branch continues.
In the period, July to September 2021, 182 child internet protection referrals were received from the National Crime Agency and National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
In the same period, this resulted in 25 searches and 14 people were charged or reported in relation to indecent images-related offences.
Additionally, 15 people were convicted in court for indecent images of children-related offences while 18 persons of concern were identified.
The PSNI and gardaí are also working with the Tanzanian police around cases of child exploitation and raising awareness of the issue across the island of Ireland.
Closer to home, the PSNI began to investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse involving mother and baby homes last October and have so far received 29 allegations of criminal activity. “Those reports vary from adoption issues to sexual assault, so it is a slow process,” he says. “It will probably take us the best part of this year to get through that.”
But as it was with some of the Co Fermanagh victims, those impacted by mother and baby homes say they do not have much confidence in the PSNI’s ability to help get them justice.
“Uncertainty is something we are seeing, with others having a mistrust because of the way things were handled by different departments. Trying to break that down and reassure people is a big thing for us, especially as there seems to have been a cross-border aspect,” said Det Supt Reid.
Soon the force will begin an international campaign to appeal for victims of mother and baby homes who live outside Northern Ireland to come forward to share their experiences.
There are under 3,000 sex offenders in the community and in jail who are having to be “robustly managed”, with any breaches reported “straight away”.
One of the biggest issues for police here is those individuals who access indecent images online. In some cases, the PSNI has discovered people who pay for live-streaming of child abuse in different countries.
“Yeah, that’s happening in Northern Ireland. If you take, for instance, up until November last year, we are sitting at 670 investigations. Over the last five or six years, that’s gone up to something like 700pc, and there has been a massive increase in online grooming where you will have people going on pretending they are children,” he explained.
Officers working within public protection are, in some cases, having to view the images online to try and identify the victims.
The impact viewing such images is having on officers like Reid is “phenomenal”. “It’s not the sort of thing you can switch off and go home and then forget about. This is the most demanding unit for a detective and the most upsetting as well.
"The depravity of some people out there amazes me,” he says.