Historical Institutional Child Abuse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry has reported. The Inquiry, chaired by Sir Anthony Hart, a former Judge of the Northern Ireland High Court, studied allegations of abuse in 22 homes and other residential institutions between 1922 and 1995, the largest number of which related to four homes run by the Roman Catholic Church. A total of 493 applicants engaged with the Inquiry in one way or another. The majority were interviewed in Belfast, but others were seen in the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and Australia.

Setting out the findings of the report at a two-hour launch, Sir Anthony said the largest number of complaints received related to four Sisters of Nazareth homes. It found that nuns physically and emotionally abused children in their care. He confirmed that 39 boys were abused at some point during their time at the former local authority-run Kincora Boys’ Home in east Belfast.

Three men, William McGrath, Raymond Semple and Joseph Mains, who were senior care staff at Kincora, were jailed in 1981 for abusing 11 boys. Sir Anthony said when the RUC became aware in 1974 of complaints against McGrath, the investigation had been “inept and inadequate” and a proper investigation into McGrath might have meant the children who were abused after 1974 could have been spared; however, there was no evidence that security agencies were complicit in the abuse that took place at Kincora.

The Inquiry also found that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor failed to raise concerns about serial child abuser  Fr Brendan Smyth and did not pass allegations of abuse to social services or the police, while the Norbertine Order, of which Smyth was member, failed to take steps to expel him. Smith was jailed in the 1990s. In a damning assessment, the Report said that:

“For the Norbertine Order and for others outside the Order in positions of responsibility in the church, their overriding priority throughout was to protect the good name of the Church and at all times to prioritise Fr Smyth’s interests, instead of doing what was best for the children abused by him.

“By doing so they were prepared to ignore their responsibilities under the canon law of the Church and their obligations under the criminal law as well as their moral responsibilities to the victims of his abuse, thereby allowing him to continue to abuse children far and wide for many decades.”

The principal recommendations of the Report are:

  • that survivors of abuse, including in homes or institutions not covered by the Inquiry, and relatives of abused persons now deceased, should be compensated;
  • that a permanent memorial to the victims should be erected at Stormont;
  • that survivors should receive a public apology;
  • that a commissioner be appointed for survivors of institutional abuse; and
  • that specialist care and assistance be put in place, tailored to needs of victims.

On the subject of compensation, the Inquiry concluded that compensation should not be paid to individuals simply because they were resident in an institution in which abuse was found. However, it recommended that some children who were not themselves abused but who had been subjected to the ‘harsh’ atmosphere of being surrounded by abuse should be compensated.

In a subsequent statement, the Sisters of Nazareth apologised to anyone who had suffered abuse while in their care:

“It was always the desire of the Order to provide a safe place for children and when we failed on any occasion, we want to express our deepest regret. This has been a traumatic time for those survivors and victims who have come forward, however, we sincerely hope it has also been an opportunity to find some relief.”

Update: The text of the Report is now available on-line.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Historical Institutional Child Abuse in Northern Ireland" in Law & Religion UK, 20 January 2017, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2017/01/20/historical-institutional-child-abuse-in-northern-ireland/

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