Calls to probe Ulster’s child care home abuse

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Why has Stormont not yet started an inquiry into child abuse in Northern Ireland? SAM McBRIDE reports

STORMONT is under pressure to set up two investigations into child sex abuse by Catholic priests – and possibly others – in Northern Ireland.

Jim Wells, who is to take over as health minister in two years, warns that Northern Ireland has been “sleeping” about the level of abuse which has taken place north of the border.

Some of the stories which survivors of abuse have taken to MLAs in an attempt to convince them of the horrific nature of their suffering show that the abuse has been “much worse than even what was happening in the Republic”, the DUP MLA has told the News Letter.

Mr Wells said that “if ten per cent of what we hear is true then we are in for gruesome hearings”.

If victims’ allegations prove to be correct, he said that “we have had a cesspit of abuse going on, sometimes in the leafy suburbs of Belfast”.

And, pointing to the urgency of the situation, he added: “Some of the priests are still alive.”

Unlike inquiries into Troubles-related events, there is understood to be a fairly broad political consensus about the need for Stormont to undertake an investigation into the scale and nature of abuse in Northern Ireland.

However, despite cross-party support, the process is taking a considerable time, something which politicians say is important to ensure that the terms of the inquiry are properly thought through.

Stormont has agreed to set up an inquiry into ‘institutional abuse’ — that is, abuse which occurred in institutions set up to care for orphaned or otherwise needy children in Northern Ireland.

In a statement released earlier this month, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness said that the executive had held “a wide ranging discussion on the report of the Interdepartmental Taskforce on Historical Institutional Abuse” but no decision would be taken on how to proceed until “early autumn”.

However, clerical abuse – that is, individual priests who abused children within parishes – is a more difficult issue to address. Unlike many of the children in institutions, most of those believed to have been abused within what were often small, tightly-knit communities have been more reluctant to speak up about abuse which in some cases they have attempted to forget.

There is a second, political, challenge to setting up an inquiry into clerical abuse at parish level: most of the Catholic dioceses straddle the border.

The SDLP’s Conall McDevitt, who has led the political campaign for wide-ranging inquiries into both institutional and clerical abuse, said that Stormont should agree to work with Dublin on an inquiry.

He argues that such a decision is a very obvious issue for the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) to take forward as it is a serious issue which must be addressed on both sides of the border. “You’d need to have a seamless process that crosses over and back and more or less is invisible to the border,” he said.

And he said that the issue has united unionists and nationalists as using the north-south body as it is the most straightforward way “to deal with something that is very obviously an all-island problem”.

Mr Wells said that he had “no problem at all” with the NSMC looking into what is “clearly a non-political” issue.

Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister said that Northern Ireland’s inquiry now needed to have a broader remit, given what has been revealed in the Cloyne Report.

He said the fact that in the Republic sexual abuse was still being covered up by the Catholic Church three years ago means that the executive has a duty to ensure that children in Northern Ireland are protected.

He said: “It’s such a huge issue, I think it’s going to be difficult for the executive not to broaden that [institutional] inquiry out.”

Mr McCallister said that the Catholic church, not taxpayers, should fund the majority of the inquiry costs, and added: “I think there’s a huge moral imperative on the church to be frank and honest and open, and work with the inquiry.”

However, Michael Kelly, deputy editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, has cautioned MLAs about the need to be sensitive to Catholic fears that they are being singled out.

“If this is an inquiry into institutional abuse in Catholic institutions in the north, I think that will be a very bad move because it will lend itself to the view among northern Catholics that they are being singled out,” he said.

“Other churches and indeed the state ran institutions, so I think an inquiry should cover all of those if there is to be any level of fairness.

“It was easier in the Republic where the overwhelming majority of the institutions were run by the church.”