Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry held its first public hearing on Monday, January 13, 2014. The day marked the fourth public session of the Inquiry into historical abuse in residential institutions in Northern Ireland. The Inquiry is examining allegations of child abuse in children’s homes and other residential institutions in Northern Ireland spanning the period of 1922 to 1995.

It is the largest public inquiry concerning child abuse ever held in the United Kingdom. To date, it has been contacted by over 400 potential witnesses, saying that they had been abused while in care during their childhoods.

Turnout is truly international, as the Belfast Telegraph explains: “Coming from all over Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and Australia, the witnesses – many of whom will only be identified by a code to protect their anonymity – may finally get recognition of the wrong that was done to them after the inquiry reports to the Executive early in 2016.”


The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry builds on the foundation set by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was established in 2000 to investigate allegations of abuse at Catholic-run children’s institutions in Ireland. The Ryan Report, as it is commonly known, was released on May 20, 2009. The Ryan Commission examined allegations of child abuse at Catholic-run children’s institutions in Ireland spanning a 60-year period.

The main findings of the Ryan report, derived from the executive summary, included:

Physical and emotional abuse, as well as and physical and emotional neglect, were prominent features of the institutions.

Sexual abuse occurred in institutions, and this was particularly so in boys’ institutions.

Schools were run in a harsh and regimented manner that served to impose unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and staff alike.

Children frequently went hungry. At its best the food was inadequate, and it was was inedible and badly prepared in many of the schools.

Many witnesses testified to having been constantly fearful – even terrified – and that these feelings impacted on every aspect of their lives in the institution.

Prolonged and excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurred with the knowledge and complicity of senior staffers.

Children were subjected to constant criticism, and verbal abuse. Many were told that they were worthless.

Some children lost all sense of their identity and kinship, never fully recovering from that loss.

Children who absconded were severely beaten, at times publicly. Some had their heads shaved, and were humiliated in other ways.

Inspectors, on far-too-rare visits, rarely – if at all – spoke with the children in the institutions.

The five-volume report concluded that church officials encouraged beatings, and consistently shielded paedophiles from arrest amidst a “culture of self-serving secrecy.”

The report also found that government inspectors failed to prevent the chronic beatings, rapes, and humiliation of children who were wards of the institutions.

The findings of the Ryan Report may not be used for criminal prosecutions, at least in part because the Christian Brothers denomination successfully sued the Commission in 2004 to prevent the identities of all of its members from being revealed, regardless of whether they were dead or alive.

One chapter of the five volume report deals with a Christian Brothers’ school called Letterfrack. The school was founded in 1885 and was situated in a remote hillside location, miles away from public transport. The Ryan report described it as “an inhospitable, bleak, isolated institution accessable only by car or bicycle and out of reach for family or friends of boys incarcerated there.”

The report continues on to note that: “Physical punishment was severe, excessive and pervasive and by being administered in public or within earshot of other children it was used as a means of engendering fear and ensuring control.”

Yet physical punishment pales in comparison to what many young wards had to endure, as the report explained:

Sexual abuse was a chronic problem. For two thirds of the relevant period there was at least one sexual abuser in the school, for almost one third of the period there were two abusers in the school and at times there were three abusers working in Letterfrack at the same time. Two abusers were present for periods of 14 years each and the Congregation could offer no explanation as to how these Brothers could have remained in the School for so long undetected and unreported.

The investigation included St Joseph’s Industrial School, which was established in 1862 and was certified for 145 boys. The report notes that: “Serious allegations were outlined both in documents and in oral testimony about a Brother who was violent and dangerous over a number of years.”

The Brother was moved from a day school because his violence towards children was causing severe problems with their parents. He was transfered to another industrial school. “Such a move displayed a callous disregard for the safety of children in care,” the report explained.

At St. Joseph’s school, “Children were left unprotected and vulnerable to bullying by older boys and this was stated to be a particular problem in Tralee both in terms of physical and sexual abuse.”

Sexual abuse by staff was not as persistent a problem as it was in some other facilities, however one Brother was cited by complainants and others as “behaving inappropriately” with the boys. He was on the staff for 20 years, “and his behaviour was known to at least three Superiors who did not attempt to stop it.” One ex-Brother gave evidence about his experience of Tralee, describing “a cold hostile culture where the boys were treated with harshness: ‘It was a secret enclosed world, run on fear’”.

The Ryan report said that girls supervised by orders of nuns, primarily the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse, but endured frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless. With regard to schools as institutions, the report ultimately concluded:

The harshness of the regime was inculcated into the culture of the schools by successive generations of Brothers, priests and nuns. It was systemic and not the result of individual breaches by persons who operated outside lawful and acceptable boundaries. Excesses of punishment generated the fear that the school authorities believed to be essential for the maintenance of order. In many schools, staff considered themselves to be custodians rather than carers.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, said those who perpetrated violence and abuse should be held to account, “no matter how long ago it happened,” according to a BBC News report from May 2009.

The Ryan Inquiry, however, covered only the Republic of Ireland. That is the backdrop against which the Inquiry will be serving, as it seeks to uncover the absolute truths about institutional care in Northern Ireland.


Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse is a mutual support and campaign group of survivors and victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. According to their official web site, the group aims “to act as a coherent voice for the needs and demands of survivors of institutional abuse and to campaign for justice for the many children – now adults – who suffered physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuses in institutions across Northern Ireland.”

The organization has “lobbied successfully for support from all the main Northern Ireland political parties and secured a commitment in December 2010 from the NI Executive to establish an inquiry into historical institutional abuses,” the site explains.

Survivors of Northern Ireland’s institutional care in Belfast with the Lord Mayor.

“For four years, Margaret McGuckin has been on a mission to seek justice for up to 6,000 people who suffered years of abuse and neglect in work houses and church-run homes for children in Northern Ireland,” reports Tanya Talaga in the Toronto Star.

Talaga adds that: “There are thousands of them just like her throughout Northern Ireland and Canada, who hid their past — from husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, friends and children — out of fear no one would believe what they experienced in the country’s state- or clergy-run homes, hospitals, orphanages, Borstals and training schools.”

In the Republic of Ireland, widespread Catholic and institutional abuse was the subject of the nine-year Ryan inquiry. But in Northern Ireland, “no one acknowledged the existence of potential victims, even though the same religious orders ran children’s homes in the north, where tens of thousands of children were placed in institutions from 1922 to 1995,” Talaga explains.

Margaret McGuckin herself was a victim of Northern Ireland’s institutions. In October 2009, the Belfast Telegraph ran a heartrending article detailing her account in the Nazareth House girls’ home. “We were treated like child slaves being made to scrub the floors, windows and walls. It was like something out of a Dickens’ book,” McGuckin said.

Margaret McGuckin displays the black and white photograph of herself as a child in institutional care.

She carries a large black and white photograph of herself as a child. “Look how sad she is. That is me. I was three-years-old and as far as I can remember I had just arrived at Nazareth House girls’ home on the Ormeau Road,” she explained.

Years of patient and persistent lobbying for justice finally paid off for the survivors, and this is reflected by the headlines surrounding the first public hearing of the Inquiry. “Child abuse inquiry: Finally victims get the hearing they deserve,” a headline reads in the Belfast Telgraph.


The Chairman, Sir Anthony Hart, who retired as a High Court Judge in Northern Ireland in January of 2012, began the public hearing by introducing himself and the distinguished other members of the panel.

Posters promoting the Inquiry were placed in transit depots and other public places.

The Inquiry had launched a considerable media campaign to attract potential witnesses to come forward, Sir Hart explained. Large posters were prominently displayed in bus depots and other public places. Press releases were issued, and, the Inquiry had reached out to a wide pool of potential witnesses outside of Northern Ireland. Unlike similar inquiries that had taken place over the course of the years, this one had the benefit of a global adult audience. A web site was also established and regularly updated to provide information to potential witnesses.


Sir Anthony Hart during opening remarks on the first day of the Inquiry

Sir Hart explained that not all witnesses who had been interviewed would be able to provide testimony, as: “Sadly a small number have died since they were seen. Some may not be well enough to do so. Some may not be able to do so for other reasons, and so some witnesses may give their evidence in the form of statements that are read out without them being present.”

Sir Hart further explained that the vast majority of those who were interviewed and who agreed to provide statements, agreed to provide them in a public forum: “Of the 434 who made formal applications to the Inquiry 46 only wanted to speak to the private and confidential part of the process called the Acknowledgment Forum and 362 have so far said they wish to speak to the public part of the Inquiry.”

With the growing knowledge of the child migration schemes; the orphans of living parents; the en masse removal of native and aboriginal children from their homes; the warehousing of women in Magdalene Laundries and similar institutions, as well as the coerced sterilizations of poor women by social workers enamored with the rhetoric of eugenics, it is no longer a solitary shame to have been victimized.

Indeed, some victims have lived out the majority of their lifetimes waiting to be heard and believed. Some have died while the opportunity seemed just within their reach.1

Christine Smith, QC

Such is the case with the current Inquiry, as Christine Smith, QC, Senior Counsel to the Inquiry explained on the opening day: “Many have waited years for this day to come, the start of the public hearings, when they can come and give their accounts of what happened to them when they were children in residential homes in Northern Ireland and about the effects it had on the course of their lives.”

The focus of the Inquiry, according to its terms of reference, is on abuse in institutional settings, and as such, abuse that may have taken place in schools or in institutions similar to the Magdalene Laundries will not be explored.

As a BBC News report explains it: “victims of clerical child abuse that took place outside residential institutions, those abused in foster care and former residents of Magdalene laundry-style homes in Northern Ireland, are excluded from taking part.”2

What does fall squarely within the remit of the current Inquiry are the child migration schemes, as Sir Hart explained:

We have also received applications from 61 people who now live in Australia. It may surprise many of you that we received so many applications from Australia. The reason for this is that in the years after the Second World War a significant number of children who had been in institutions in Northern Ireland were sent to Australia. They were known as “Child Migrants”. We are investigating how they were treated in institutions before they left Northern Ireland and why and how they were sent to Australia.


This promises to fill in some crucial historical gaps in the record, as the primary resources available to historians generally view the migrant children’s experiences from their point of arrival. The extensive report Lost Innocents: Righting the Record was published by the Australian Senate in August of 2001. As the prologue to the report explains:

This report describes a very sorry chapter in Australia’s history. It is a story which has to be told and in so doing, exposes the role of both the British and Australian Governments in bringing child migrants to this country. The British and Australian Governments entered into agreements for the migration of children to Australia. The Australian Government was the legislated guardian of the children but then transferred responsibility for their care to State Governments. In turn, the State Governments transferred responsibility to receiving agencies.

The responsibility was transferred, but in many cases the duty of care and protection was not. While some child migrants have made positive comments about their time in institutional care, many others can only recall childhoods of loneliness, great hardship and privations. While under the custodianship of receiving agencies, there was a complete disregard for the needs, the safety and wellbeing of many child migrants.

The report continues on to explain that: “The evidence received by the Committee overwhelmingly emphasised the dark, negative side of child migration – the brutality of life in some institutions where abuse and assault, both physical and sexual, was a daily occurrence and where hardship, hard work and indifferent care was the norm. Living such negative experiences led some child migrants into a life of family and relationship breakdown and domestic violence, of crime and violence, and of substance abuse.” The report notes that:

A number of common themes in relation to the treatment of child migrants emerge from the history of British child migration. For many child migrants sent to overseas British colonies and later the Dominions, once in their new country there was a depressingly common pattern of abuse and neglect. Child migrants were also used as cheap labour, suffered a loss of identity and sense of belonging, were lied to and about their family, and were stigmatised as outcasts in their new country.

In broader terms, the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse in Queensland Institutions issued a 380-page report on the operations of the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, exposing many cherished myths about the system, among them the pervasive myth of the orphan. As the Commission explained:

We believe that it is important to place on the public record that few of the children historically placed in orphanages were, in fact, orphans. Most were either removed from their families by the State, or placed in orphanages by their parents, who for various reasons (such as the death or illness of one parent) were unable to look after them. In the case of indigenous children, this occurred simply because of the colour of their skin.3

The Queensland Inquiry revealed a great deal about the conditions endured by children in care, and it shattered many deeply cherished myths. One particularly “disturbing matter” that the Queensland Commission sought to enter into the public record was that:

many children who have been incarcerated in the State’s reformatories, detention centres and similar institutions over the years should never have been incarcerated at all. Some boys were sent there simply because they reached the age of 14 years and could no longer stay in an orphanage; girls were often placed there for being in ‘moral danger’, which generally referred to being active sexually; others were placed there for minor offences such as truancy or running away. These children then associated with children who were convicted of criminal offences, were treated like criminals, were labelled as criminals, and were treated far more harshly than their behaviour ever warranted. Little wonder that many of these children subsequently fell into criminal activities and have bitterly resented their unjust incarceration.

Doubtless there will be many striking parallels to be found between the experiences of those in Australian and Irish institutions. The significance of the current Inquiry’s findings may be that they will fill in the gaps from the standpoint of the process of selecting and preparing the migrant children for departure from their primary point of origin in the United Kingdom.

1. During his apology to the Forgotten Australians and the child migrants, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged that many had passed away while awaiting such a moment, and that many had perished by means of suicide. So, too, did many survivors of the Magdalene Laundries perish while awaiting either an official acknowledgment or compensation. See for example “Outrage as another Magdalene laundries survivor dies without receiving any compensation,” Irish Mirror, October 22, 2013 (noting that: “A Magdalene laundries survivors group has slammed the Government after another victim died without receiving compensation”).

2. Survivors of Magdalene laundries and similar institutions have been pressing for inclusion in the current Inquiry. See for example “Call to widen historic abuse probe,” Belfast Telegraph, June 2, 2013.

3. The concept of “orphans of the living” is often repeated in the literature. See for example Penglase, J, ‘Orphans of the Living’: The Home Children NSW 1939-1965, Ph.D thesis, Macquarie University, 1999; Toth, J. (1997). “Orphans of the living: Stories of America’s children in foster care,”. New York: Simon & Schuster (referring to the contemporary removal of children from their homes and the placement of these children into foster care); Hazeltine, S “Speedy Termination of Alaska Native Parental Rights: The 1998 Changes to Alaska’s Child in Need of Aid Statutes and Their Inherent Conflict with the Mandates of the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act.” Alaska L. Rev. 19 (2002): 57; Floria, S, “More Good than Harm: Legal Orphans and the New Jersey Post-Termination Project,” 59 Juvenile and Family Court Journal, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Spring 2008. In April 2013, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges acknowledged this problem by issuing a bulletin aptly entitled Forever Families: Improving Outcomes by Achieving Permanency for Legal Orphans

Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry home page contains transcripts, news, and other materials.

Northern Ireland government crime information

The Northern Ireland government’s crime information page concerning the current HIA Inquiry.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse

The Commission’s home page holds the five-volume report from the Inquiry in the Republic of Ireland.

Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse

The home page of the advocacy group that made the current Inquiry in Northern Ireland a reality.

Elsewhere on the web
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