Belfast Telegraph

'Several times a week, the principal would summon Lynn to his office, close the blinds and abuse her... she was eight years of age'

Mired in a historical abuse scandal, Co Fermanagh is witness to the raw hurt still felt to this day and the search for justice. Rodney Edwards reports

John McElholm has been named by alleged victims
John McElholm has been named by alleged victims
David Sullivan has been named by alleged victims
A bog where the body of David Sullivan was found in Belcoo, as specialist police officers have been assigned to 19 historic sex abuse investigations, seven linked to the bus driver
The Show You Care Be There rally on Saturday for justice for historical sex abuse victims

By Rodney Edwards

A dark cloud continues to hang over Enniskillen as more revelations are unearthed over historical child sexual abuse in Fermanagh. At the weekend, up to 100 people attended a rally in a show of support to victims.

When the sun shines the lakeland county can be a picturesque place with the bluest of skies, but not on Saturday when the rain epitomised the mood as it dribbled down the tear-soaked faces of some of those clinging onto placards calling for justice.

Fermanagh's murky past is being unearthed amid a long-running investigation by The Impartial Reporter newspaper which has discovered the widespread abuse of power spanning decades by those who allegedly abused and raped children.

For those 50 alleged victims who have contacted the newspaper so far it's difficult to find the sunlight beyond that dark cloud because they cannot find peace until justice is done.

But some, like Lynn (not her real name), will never see her alleged abuser behind bars.

John McElholm, who died in 1995, was regarded as a pillar of the Irvinestown community when he was principal of St Paul's Primary School over 30 years ago. He also spent 26 years as chairman of Fermanagh GAA, one of the organisation's longest serving Gaels, and was a member of the Arts Council, Sports Council and president of the local St Vincent de Paul Society.

Lynn should have been safe in primary school among her friends, in the town she lived in, dropped off at the gate each day by her parents. But instead she was summoned to the principal's office several times a week where he'd close the door, tilt his Venetian window blinds so that nobody could see in and sexually abuse her. Then he'd send her back to class. She was eight years old.

"He rubbed my shoulders, then he worked down under my clothes and chest area, then proceeded to place his hands under my underwear. He molested me, again and again," she said.

And the abuse, she claims, did not remain within the confines of his small, dark office but at the Lakeland Forum leisure centre where he allegedly abused her under the water while teaching her to swim.

Several child sexual allegations have been made against McElholm, with claims that the abuse was well known, after 12 alleged victims contacted the newspaper.

He died aged 82 in a nursing home outside Irvinestown.

While the years have passed the memories of his alleged depravity have not faded for some of his alleged victims.

Kate (not her real name) claims McElholm summoned her and about five other Camogie team members to his office where they "were all abused".

"He lined us up in order of size and groped the five of us. He touched our breasts and put his hand up our skirts. If we wore tights he put his hand up our skirt to our bottom," said the 55-year-old.

McElholm was regarded as a pillar of the community 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.

"Everyone in Irvinestown knew what was going on, it was an open secret in the town," said one source.

"It was accepted, as he was treated as a God in the community," said another source who claims to have witnessed abuse.

Maureen (not her real name) has been haunted by what she says she experienced in the Seventies at the hands of McElholm and claims her sister was also abused by him.

"I ask myself a question that has been haunting me for years. Why did I wait so long? Now in my 50s I kept that secret for over 40 years."

But secrets of the past are now coming to light and difficult but important conversations are taking place in homes across Fermanagh.

Pauline and Anne (not their real names) are two sisters who were shocked to recently discover that they had both been abused by the same man in their home in Lisnaskea over 30 years ago.

They recalled how the relative, named by five different alleged victims, sexually molested them between the ages of seven and 10 as they lay in the bed they shared.

"He could sleep in the same bed as us because he was a relative, I suppose there was trust back then. When mummy and daddy were out he'd get in the bed beside us. That's when he'd abuse us," said Pauline.

"He has ruined my life and is still walking the streets," said Anne. "The police need to arrest him, he needs to be put before the courts and behind bars."

Another man allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl, sparking pregnancy fears at her school over 30 years ago, and he allegedly abused her older brother too.

Helen and Kevin (not their real names) claim they were sexually abused by the same man from the education sector when they were children and say he was never prosecuted because their case was dropped "due to a lack of evidence" after they went to the RUC in Enniskillen.

Helen, now 42, has spoken of her horror at believing she was pregnant after she was allegedly raped repeatedly by the man whose children she babysat and who offered to be her "boyfriend" when she was still a child herself.

Kevin, now 44, says the same man plied him with vodka and made him watch pornographic videos before abusing him. He also claims that a second man from the farming community also sexually abused him along with other unidentified men, when he was 15.

For Helen, now married with children of her own, the memories are all too real. She remembers being brought to the alleged abuser's bedroom where he raped her, warning her there would be "consequences" if she ever told her parents.

"Later I would discover that my period was late and I thought I was pregnant," she said, explaining that she spoke privately to at least two of her school teachers who later alerted the police.

And Kevin deals with the same torment every single day after the same alleged abuser carried out a string of sick sex attacks on the him when he was a teenager, despite him breaking down in tears and begging for it to stop.

"He forced me to do what he said. After he sexually abused me he said if I ever told anyone what had happened he would injure me badly."

At 15 years old, Kevin claims he was raped by another man, a farmer, who offered him a lift home but instead hoodwinked him into visiting his flat by offering him alcohol.

"Inside I started to fall asleep and I remember him saying 'go to sleep for an hour and I'll wake you up and take you home'. I remember wakening and noticed my trousers were down and he was abusing me," said Kevin.

"I can still remember the pain and I cried out and he covered my mouth with his hand," he said.

That sense of fear was felt by the very many victims who have come forward in recent months, including those who it is believed suffered at the hands of Enniskillen bus driver David Sullivan who ended up murdered and buried in a Border bog near Belcoo almost 20 years ago.

It's claimed the former youth worker abused numerous children for years, in some cases even drugging and raping them.

Those memories are still as vivid as ever for the man who was allegedly abused 12 times on board Sullivan's Ulsterbus when he was 12, or the 15-year-old he brought to his Lisbellaw flat where he forced him to watch pornography before abusing him. Or the man he allegedly drugged and raped, leaving him mentally and physically scarred for life - a case the RUC allegedly advised his family to drop.

Specialist detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Public Protection Branch are interviewing alleged victims of sexual abuse in Fermanagh after setting up a special task force in response to the allegations.

Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew met with officers last week, describing the meeting as "useful" and adding that it is "imperative that the investigation is robust and thorough".

But six months after the first claims were reported to police there has yet to be one arrest.

It sparked the claim by Democratic Unionist peer Maurice Morrow that victims of child sex abuse have been let down by a "lacklustre approach" by the PSNI. He along with DUP leader Arlene Foster will meet with senior detectives today to discuss the issue.

In a message sent to Saturday's rally and read on his behalf by DUP Councillor Keith Elliott, Lord Morrow said: "I assure victims, I pledge to continue demanding the PSNI and other agencies provide the answers which you deserve but to date have not been forthcoming."

The victims listening applauded in agreement, hoping that in time the storm will pass.

But at the moment all they can see are the dark clouds of a past that saw their innocence stolen so cruelly by men who got away with it.

Rodney Edwards is the Deputy Editor of The Impartial Reporter newspaper and can be contacted on redwards@impartialreporter.com

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