Northern Ireland news

Institutional abuse victims told 'we let you down' as ministers deliver public apology

Margaret McGuckin from survivors group Savia is among those to arrive at Stormont this morning. Picture by Hugh Russell 

Victims of historical institutional abuse have heard how they were failed by the state as Stormont ministers today delivered a public apology on behalf of the government.

The public apology was recommended in 2017 as part of an inquiry by Sir Anthony Hart.

Read More: Abuse campaigner Margaret McGuckin: 'I hope it's a new beginning but will we ever be free of those nightmares?'

Ministers Michelle McIlveen, Conor Murphy, Nichola Mallon, Robin Swann and Naomi Long offered an apology in the assembly chamber on behalf of the executive.

Each of the institutions criticised by the landmark 2017 Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry report for systemic failings also made apologies.

These institutions are: De La Salle Order, Sisters of Nazareth, Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of St. Louis, Barnardo’s and Irish Church Missions.

Delivering his apology, Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy said survivors had had to wait too long.

He said: "We acknowledge that the delay in progressing this recommendation from the Hart report has further added to the stress that you experienced.

"For this, we are sorry.

"You, and all victims and survivors, deserve nothing less than full acknowledgement of the harm inflicted on you as children, and the suffering you have endured throughout your lives as a result of our failures.

"You deserve to be supported in the right way, as recommended by Sir Anthony Hart."

Mr Murphy added: "We are also mindful that this will be a difficult, emotional and traumatic day for many of you, and you may need to take time to reflect on what we have said today.

"The apology we offer you is unconditional. We should have protected you and we did not. We are sorry.

"You were harmed by those who should have cared for you. We are sorry.

"You told the truth, yet you were not believed. We are sorry.

"We are responsible. And we are so very, very sorry."

UUP health minister Robin Swann said politicians had learnt a lot from the experiences of victims of historical institutional abuse.

He added: "We want to acknowledge all of you who had the courage to speak up and highlight the most horrendous abuse - abuse that no child should have to endure.

"This was often done at great personal cost.

"What happened to each and every one of you was wrong. It should not have happened and it is critical that every possible step is taken to ensure that nothing like this happens to any other child in the care of the state - ever again."

Mr Swann said: "The Hart Inquiry examined in detail the legislative and governance structures within which residential institutions operated.

"It found the lack of inspection amounted to a systemic failing by the Department of Health and Social Services to ensure some homes provided proper care.

"That failing meant government failed to ensure some homes were complying with what the law required of them - laws that were in place for good reason - and more importantly that children were not receiving proper care.

"For that we can offer no excuse. It was wrong. It should not have happened and we are sorry."

SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said no apology to victims of abuse could make up for the failings of the past.

She added: "We hope that our clear and outright acknowledgement will bring some relief.

"We know that many children suffered greatly as a result of being separated from their families.

"Some experienced neglect and emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hand of those who were supposed to care for them. We know that many of you were exposed to a harsh environment.

"That environment had a lasting emotional impact on those exposed to it, including a lifelong feeling of guilt. That is wrong. None of this was of your doing and none of this was your fault.

"The guilt and shame of what happened is not, nor has it ever been, your burden to bear.

"The burden belongs only to us; those who should have protected you."

Ms Mallon added: "Your lived experiences became part of the first inquiry of its kind in Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

"As a result, the state has learned much to help inform our policies on safeguarding of children; and on keeping today's laws and guidance up-to-date, designed with children at the front and centre of our work.

"We pay tribute to your courage in making this contribution for the benefit of those who came after you.

"We acknowledge and regret that the interests of children were not always front and centre of our work."

Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long said the Assembly chamber at Stormont was a "fitting and proper venue" for the apology to victims of historical institutional abuse.

She said: "This is where our laws are made, where we - ministers and those responsible for governing - are held to account. We are united in our acceptance of responsibility.

"No-one can undo the past; nor can we undo your past."

Ms Long continued: "We acknowledge your desire to make sure that future generations of children will never have to suffer the abuse you experienced - we echo that desire and it is our job to make sure that does not happen.

"The late Sir Anthony Hart rightly welcomed the 'courage and determination' of victims and survivors.

"Your courage and determination led to a report that made government and society reflect upon how it treated its most vulnerable and on the harms they endured.

"Some 13 years after you first came to Parliament Buildings, the courage and determination of all of you means that you are sitting here today listening closely to what is being said.

"We pay tribute to your courage and determination, and to your staying power."

DUP education minister Michelle McIlveen said: "Today, we say that we are sorry.

"Whilst in the care of the state you were made vulnerable - we did not ensure all our residential homes were filled with love and safety.

"We did not ensure these homes were all free from hunger and cold, from mistreatment and abuse.

"It was the state's responsibility to do that, and it failed you.

"We neglected you, rejected you, we made you feel unwanted. It was not your fault. The state let you down."

Ms McIlveen added: "We recognise that, as adults now and survivors of historical institutional abuse, you carry the effects of that suffering and its continued impact on your daily life.

"We apologise to you for the trauma inflicted upon you as children whilst in the care of the state. We are sorry."

Br Francis Manning, from De La Salle, specifically acknowledged failings at Rubane and St Patrick's Training School.

He said his organisation accepted that there were children in their care "subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and to excessive physical punishment".

"We accept that we had a responsibility to prevent this abuse occurring and acknowledge that we did not take sufficient action to investigate allegations of abuse and ensure prosecution where appropriate.

"These serious failures are a matter of profound regret to the De La Salle brothers.

"We recognise that fear, shame and punishment were experienced, and that there were those who have carried this trauma throughout their lives.

"For our part, we wish to say we are sorry and wish to offer our sincere apology," he concluded.

Sr Cornelia Walsh, from the Sisters of Nazareth, said they were offering a "heartfelt apology" to victims.

"We recognise your pain and the long-awaited journey you have travelled to reach this day."

"When you sought our help to prevent physical or sexual abuse, we did not believe you," she told those listening at the Assembly.

"There are no acceptable excuses. We are sorry."

Uainin Clarke, from Sisters of St Louis, accepted the findings that a "harsh regime" existed in St Joseph's Training School, Middletown.

"We are indeed sorry for this."

"To those of you who suffered at any time while at St Joseph's and are still carrying that pain, we say we are especially sorry that when you were a child or a teenager, you did not always feel safe or believed while at St Joseph's."

Cait O'Leary, from the Good Shepherd Sisters, acknowledged that "mistakes were made in the care provided to girls and young women".

"The practice of changing names on admission represented poor practice and should not have happened.

"In one of our institutions, there was a practice of reading out misdemeanours and humiliating you in front of others. We unreservedly accept that this amounted to emotional abuse and deeply regret that you experienced this practice."

She said that children did not receive the appropriate care while in Good Shepherd Sisters' institutions.

"It was not acceptable that you were expected to engage in industrial work," she said.

Michele Janes, of Barnardo's, said she wanted victims to know that the organisation had listened to their stories.

She said: "We know now there were times when we failed to query some of the behaviours that staff displayed and when concerns about staff behaviour were reported by you or identified by other members of staff, we did not use the systems or processes we had in place robustly enough to ensure your voice was heard.

"We should have ensured that those responsible should have been removed from their roles immediately.

"We acknowledge that the organisational failures at the time led to the abuse as a child you experienced living with us."

She said that the organisation had met with victims.

"I reflected on the fear that was described to me, the fear that came from a look, a word, a noise, an action, from those who were supposed to protect you."

Reverend Mark Jones, representing the Irish Church Missions, said his organisation had run the Manor House Home in Lisburn.

He offered a profound apology to victims of sexual abuse.

He said: "These were crimes that could have been detected and should have been prevented.

"We recognise that such violations robbed you of your childhood and that you continue to live with the consequences to this day."

He apologised for the "treatment of bed-wetters' in the 1940s, co-operating in the sending of boys to Australia in November 1950 under the Child Migrants Scheme and the poor condition of the home in the 1950s".

The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse Fiona Ryan acknowledged the pain and suffering of all historical institutional abuse victims and survivors.

Speaking in the Assembly chamber, she paid tribute to all who had campaigned for an inquiry into historical institutional abuse.

She said: "Let us be clear why we are here today and what is being apologised for.

"We are talking about the systemic abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect of children for decades in residential institutions in Northern Ireland.

"For this abuse to succeed on this scale requires not only individual abusers and institutions to perpetrate the abuse, but failed oversight and accountability on the part of the public authorities."

Ms Ryan then called for a minute's silence for victims who died before the ministers began to speak.

The public apology was recommended in the final report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI), which was published more than five years ago.

Inquiry chair Sir Anthony Hart outlined a series of recommendations after he revealed shocking levels of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in the period 1922 to 1995.

The recommendations included that those abused in state, church and charity run homes should be offered compensation as well as an official apology from government and the organisations which ran the residential facilities where it happened – and a memorial.

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