Years of abuse, decades of neglect. Now child abuse survivors want justice

It’s been my privilege over the last eighteen months to work alongside survivors of institutional child abuse in their battle for justice. Since Margaret McGuckin and others started their campaign on behalf of the children – now adults – abused in institutions across Northern Ireland, hundreds of people have come forward with personal stories of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse.

In July 2010 I accompanied some of the survivors to a meeting with the First and deputy First Ministers where they explained their desire for a comprehensive investigation into the abuse they and others had suffered as children. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness demonstrated an understanding, empathy and unity of purpose which was impressive to behold. Northern Ireland’s political leaders listened carefully to the survivors and promised that they would not let them down.

In December the NI Executive announced its intention to hold an inquiry and established an interdepartmental taskforce. That taskforce’s consultation will end on May 23rd, after which date it will make recommendations to the Executive.

On Friday many abuse survivors gathered in Belfast to agree their submission to the taskforce and to plan the next stage in their campaign. I was asked to help talk through the draft paper – on which Amnesty had advised – which had been developed over preceding months, after listening to the wishes of many survivors, studying the lessons from similar processes in the Republic and elsewhere and looking at the pros and cons of different inquiry models.

Abuse survivors in Northern Ireland want an inquiry which will investigate child abuse allegations in all institutions, whether run by church bodies, charities or by the State itself. As well as the long-hidden truth to be finally told, they want justice, with individuals and institutions responsible for the abuse – and any subsequent cover-up – to be held accountable before the law.

The survivors and victims will this week submit their call to the taskforce, setting out in detail their demands for an independent, public, judge-led inquiry, with full powers to compel witnesses to give evidence or disclose documents.

These powers are seen as crucial to the likelihood of success of any inquiry, especially given the difficulties that many survivors have experienced in locating or accessing files about their own periods of residency in institutions. We know the PSNI has experienced similar problems in investigating historic abuse allegations.

The power to compel witnesses to give evidence to the inquiry is important given the lack of willingness of, for instance, institutions of the Catholic church, to cooperate with past inquiries in the Republic and elsewhere.

Indeed, as was revealed this week (and discussed yesterday on the BBC NI Sunday Sequence programme – at 1:04:18) the Church has even been failing to cooperate with its own child protection body, the National Board for Safeguarding Children. In the last year, more than 200 new allegations of clerical child abuse made to church authorities were withheld from the board until very recently. On Thursday, in an analysis piece of the episode by its religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry, The Irish Times gave this summary, as pithy as it is devastating:

The Catholic Church is more interested in reaching for lawyers than protecting children. 

If this is indeed true, then the inquiry will need to be robust enough to deal with that particular institution … and its lawyers.