The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry held its first public hearing on Monday, January 13, 2014. The Inquiry is examining allegations of child abuse in children’s homes and other residential institutions in Northern Ireland spanning the period of 1922 to 1995.
It is the largest public inquiry concerning child abuse ever held in the United Kingdom. To date, it has been contacted by over 400 potential witnesses, saying that they had been abused while in care during their childhoods.
Turnout is truly international, as the Belfast Telegraph explains: “Coming from all over Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and Australia, the witnesses – many of whom will only be identified by a code to protect their anonymity – may finally get recognition of the wrong that was done to them after the inquiry reports to the Executive early in 2016.”
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry builds on the foundation set by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was established in 2000 to investigate allegations of abuse at Catholic-run children’s institutions in Ireland. The Ryan Report, as it is commonly known, was released on May 20, 2009. The Ryan Commission examined allegations of child abuse at Catholic-run children’s institutions in Ireland spanning a 60-year period.
The main findings of the Ryan report, derived from the executive summary, included:
- Physical and emotional abuse, as well as and physical and emotional neglect, were prominent features of the institutions.
- Sexual abuse occurred in institutions, and this was particularly so in boys’ institutions.
- Schools were run in a harsh and regimented manner that served to impose unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and staff alike.
- Children frequently went hungry. At its best the food was inadequate, and it was was inedible and badly prepared in many of the schools.
- Many witnesses testified to having been constantly fearful – even terrified – and that these feelings impacted on every aspect of their lives in the institution.
- Prolonged and excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurred with the knowledge and complicity of senior staffers.
- Children were subjected to constant criticism, and verbal abuse. Many were told that they were worthless.
- Some children lost all sense of their identity and kinship, never fully recovering from that loss.
- Children who absconded were severely beaten, at times publicly. Some had their heads shaved, and were humiliated in other ways.
- Inspectors, on far-too-rare visits, rarely – if at all – spoke with the children in the institutions.
The five-volume report concluded that church officials encouraged beatings, and consistently shielded paedophiles from arrest amidst a “culture of self-serving secrecy.”
The report also found that government inspectors failed to prevent the chronic beatings, rapes, and humiliation of children who were wards of the institutions.
The findings of the Ryan Report may not be used for criminal prosecutions, at least in part because the Christian Brothers denomination successfully sued the Commission in 2004 to prevent the identities of all of its members from being revealed, regardless of whether they were dead or alive.
One chapter of the five volume report deals with a Christian Brothers’ school called Letterfrack. The school was founded in 1885 and was situated in a remote hillside location, miles away from public transport. The Ryan report described it as “an inhospitable, bleak, isolated institution accessable only by car or bicycle and out of reach for family or friends of boys incarcerated there.”
The report continues on to note that: “Physical punishment was severe, excessive and pervasive and by being administered in public or within earshot of other children it was used as a means of engendering fear and ensuring control.”
Yet physical punishment pales in comparison to what many young wards had to endure, as the report explained:
Sexual abuse was a chronic problem. For two thirds of the relevant period there was at least one sexual abuser in the school, for almost one third of the period there were two abusers in the school and at times there were three abusers working in Letterfrack at the same time. Two abusers were present for periods of 14 years each and the Congregation could offer no explanation as to how these Brothers could have remained in the School for so long undetected and unreported.
The investigation included St Joseph’s Industrial School, which was established in 1862 and was certified for 145 boys. The report notes that: “Serious allegations were outlined both in documents and in oral testimony about a Brother who was violent and dangerous over a number of years.”
The Brother was moved from a day school because his violence towards children was causing severe problems with their parents. He was transfered to another industrial school. “Such a move displayed a callous disregard for the safety of children in care,” the report explained.
At St. Joseph’s school, “Children were left unprotected and vulnerable to bullying by older boys and this was stated to be a particular problem in Tralee both in terms of physical and sexual abuse.”
Sexual abuse by staff was not as persistent a problem as it was in some other facilities, however one Brother was cited by complainants and others as “behaving inappropriately” with the boys. He was on the staff for 20 years, “and his behaviour was known to at least three Superiors who did not attempt to stop it.” One ex-Brother gave evidence about his experience of Tralee, describing “a cold hostile culture where the boys were treated with harshness: ‘It was a secret enclosed world, run on fear'”.
That is the backdrop against which the Inquiry that launched on Monday will be serving, as it seeks to uncover the absolute truths about institutional care in Northern Ireland.
The Ryan report said that girls supervised by orders of nuns, primarily the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse, but endured frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, said those who perpetrated violence and abuse should be held to account, “no matter how long ago it happened.”
“The reformatory and industrial schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment,” said the report.
“The harshness of the regime was inculcated into the culture of the schools by successive generations of brothers, priests and nuns.
“It was systemic and not the result of individual breaches by persons who operated outside lawful and acceptable boundaries.
“Excesses of punishment generated the fear that the school authorities believed to be essential for the maintenance of order.”
Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry members, BBC News, Jan 13, 2014.
Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry – the background, BBC News, Jan 13, 2014.
Care home abuse inquiry to open in Northern Ireland, The Guardian, Jan 13, 2014
300 victims of child homes horror to tell their story as abuse inquiry finally opens, Belfast Telegraph, Jan 13, 2014