Leading article

Definitive message needed over Muckamore Abbey

Since the enormous scale of the shocking abuse suffered by vulnerable patients at Muckamore Abbey hospital began to fully emerge as a result of an Irish News investigation last July, alarm among relatives and the general public has steadily increased.

Concern reached new levels when the appallingly violent behaviour of some members of staff at the Co Antrim institution towards inmates with serious learning difficulties was confirmed through a confidential safeguarding report presented to families a week ago.

The latest harrowing interviews which we publish today mean that, even with a PSNI investigation supported by the National Crime Agency under way, a comprehensive independent inquiry must follow and the only remaining question is the form it should take.

It is particularly disturbing to discover that, on the basis of stark evidence given to relatives by leading administrators, key details about the scandal were initially `suppressed' by the Belfast Health Trust and not forwarded to the Department of Health.

Perhaps the most heart-rending case we describe is that of a 22-year-old patient who has the learning ability of a two year old, and like many of his counterparts effectively cannot communicate, but was still subjected to regular and vicious beatings.

His father was told at the start that a `one-off' assault had occurred away from CCTV cameras, only to discover that 43 such incidents had taken place within a three-month period and all had been captured on film.

The victim's mother was subsequently able to view the footage, which showed her son holding his hands up to protect himself as he was attacked by a member of staff in the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) last year.

As our coverage today sets out, she said she had not slept since, was receiving counselling and the thought of the terrifying experiences of her child - `showing fear for the first time in his life' - was breaking her heart.

Another disturbing revelation was the way patients were repeatedly sent to a so-called seclusion room, amounting to solitary confinement without even toilet facilities, which it now appears is to be belatedly phased out.

It will be accepted that, with no minister in overall charge of the health sector for almost two years, senior officials across a range of agencies have been left in a difficult and unenviable position.

However, as the health department's permanent secretary Richard Pengelly was surely aware well in advance of the contents of last week's devastating report, which made clear that lives had been placed at risk, there will be surprise that he did not respond more decisively.

He eventually issued an apology to one relative last Thursday, and further developments are expected this week, but it is essential that an unequivocal message emphasising the absolute gravity of the overall circumstances is ultimately conveyed.

While the overall future of Muckamore Abbey is obviously in huge doubt, the priority must be assuring anguished families that their loved one are no longer in danger and the ordeals they have endured are over once and for all.

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