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Northern Ireland

'Unspeakable cruelty and vicious abuse' - historical abuse inquiry releases damning report

The greatest number of complaints relate to four Catholic-run homes in the North.

shutterstock_385711 Shutterstock / Jamie Wilson Shutterstock / Jamie Wilson / Jamie Wilson

Updated 4.25pm

A REPORT INTO institutional abuse at children’s homes in Northern Ireland has found that there was ‘widespread abuse’ at such facilities between 1922 and 1995.

The Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry had looked into allegations of abuse at 22 such children’s homes across Northern Ireland.

The largest number of complaints stemmed from four different Catholic-run institutions.

At those four Sisters of Nazareth homes nuns were found to have been physically and emotionally abusive to children in their care, chairman of the inquiry Sir Anthony Hart said at a press conference to launch the report today.

At those institutions, he added it was not unheard of for children to have outdoor disinfectant Jeyes Fluid put in their baths, while “the handling of menstruation and sex education, and other practices such as the confiscation of children’s belongings, represented poor childcare and amounted to systemic abuse”.

Sexual abuse had also been carried out by priests and lay people, Hart said.

Some institutions “sought to protect their reputations and individuals against whom allegations were made, by failing to take any action at all, failing to report matters to or deliberately misleading the appropriate authorities and moving those against whom allegations were made to other locations”.

File Photo Northern Irelands Historical Abuse Inquiry has commenced its module dealing with notorious paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth, who died in prison in 1997. Brendan Smyth, pictured in 1997

Regarding infamous paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth, Hart said: “Smyth was able to carry out widespread sexual abuse of children, including some children resident in homes investigated by the Inquiry, due to the failure of branches of the Roman Catholic Church to properly address his behaviour from before he was ordained as a priest, despite clear warnings.

There was repeated failure to assess the risk he posed to children, to confine him to his Abbey or to thoroughly investigate allegations of abuse.

As part of the inquiry hearings were held into institutions run by different branches, including the State, local authorities, the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, and children’s charity Barnardo’s. The inquiry took 232 days to complete.

Many of those who had given evidence were present for this morning’s press conference.

Hart said that for many years the “financial circumstances and living conditions were very poor” in such Northern Irish institutions.

“The extreme violence and civil disorder in the 1970s and 1980s did not leave those responsible for child care,” he said.

These factors are largely forgotten today although there were many failures. Those failings must be examined against the backdrop of the political, social and economic circumstances at the time.


The inquiry also made many recommendations regarding redress and compensation for victims. Those recommendations include:

  • A minimum of £7,500 and maximum of £80,000 in compensation should be paid to victims
  • A time-limited Historical Redress Board should be set up to administer that compensation
  • The Northern Ireland Executive and those responsible for the individual institutions should make a public apology to victims
  • A physical memorial should be set up on the grounds of Parliament Buildings at Stormont


Reacting to this morning’s press conference, religious order Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd said it “welcomed” the publication of the report.

Houses run by the order in Derry, Newry, and Belfast were all considered by the inquiry.

It said that it apologised “unreservedly” to former residents “whose care fell short of what they needed and deserved”.

We hope that the publication of this report will create an opportunity for society to continue to engage in dialogue on this issue, and apply lessons learned to current and future care of children and teenagers in Northern Ireland.

The Irish Norbertines order, of whose community Brendan Smyth was a member, said it “recognises the tragic harm and hurt caused to innocent children by Brendan Smyth, a deceased member of our community, as outlined in the report published today”.

 We again unreservedly apologise most sincerely for the hurt and harm caused to so many young people, while also accepting that our management of the man concerned and the accusations presented to us was grossly inadequate.

‘The life of the Kilnacrott Canonry changed forever in 1994 when we were confronted with the reality of our failings and their consequences,” said Fr William Fitzgerald of that order today.

In the years since we have tried to atone for our failings. In listening to the people who were so appallingly abused by Brendan Smyth we have endeavoured to demonstrate the deep remorse felt within our community.
The disposal of our farm and Abbey at Kilnacrott was directly related to our attempts to compensate and reach out to victims. Although our Abbey is now closed, a member of our community will continue to be available to listen to those who have been abused. I again acknowledge our failings to all those who have been so horribly betrayed.

Bishop of Kilmore Leo O’Reilly meanwhile said of the Smyth findings “to abuse a child is a most abhorrent act, is evil and to be condemned unreservedly”.

“Judge Hart’s report reminds us again of  the appalling crimes against children committed by Fr Brendan Smyth,” O’Reilly said.

From what I have seen of the report the evidence contained in it is at times heart-breaking to read.  It is clear that many adults who, in the place of parents, were meant to provide love and care to children, failed in a catastrophic manner to protect and nurture their precious charges.

Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of All-Ireland, said: “It is totally understandable that those abused may find it hard to forgive or find reconciliation with the Church. But we in the Church must do everything we can to submit to the demands of justice and demonstrate that we are serious about making reparation for the sins and crimes of the past.

“I call on all those in positions of leadership within the Catholic dioceses and religious congregations concerned to engage in a constructive and urgent manner with the agencies to be established by the new executive to take forward this report’s recommendations. I commit to doing all that I can – and also to encouraging others throughout the Church – to support survivors of abuse today and into the future.”


Commenting on behalf of the PSNI, Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said that the force “will take time to read the report in full and consider any learning from it”.

“We co-operated fully with the inquiry, including declassifying tens of thousands of documents, to help ensure the panel could conduct a thorough examination of relevant material,” Hamilton said this afternoon.

I apologise unreservedly for the police failings that have been identified within this report. I acknowledge that there were a number of occasions when a thorough police investigation could and should have been brought about which may have prevented more children from becoming victims.
Today, we have specially trained officers within the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch who work closely with our partner agencies on a daily basis to ensure a joined up approach to dealing with allegations of child abuse. This multi-agency approach is based on information sharing and joint police/ social care working which allows the agencies to effectively and promptly safeguard victims and potential victims.


One in Four, an organisation that supports survivors of sexual abuse, also welcomed the report.

Executive Director Maeve Lewis said: “The Hart Report documents the unspeakable cruelty to which the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland were subjected over decades while in the care of the State.

Vicious physical abuse, repeated sexual abuse and neglect were the routine experience of the children. Many of them have endured the impact of this inhumane treatment throughout their lives.

“Judge Hart describes catastrophic failures of the State agencies, religious congregations and the Church authorities to properly monitor the care of the children. The shocking revelations in Northern Ireland mirror those exposed by the Ryan Report (2009) into institutional abuse in the Republic.

We must salute the tremendous courage of all the survivors who gave evidence before the Inquiry and who continue to suffer from the trauma of their childhoods.

“Unlike in the Republic, no redress scheme was set up to run alongside the Inquiry. It is a matter of great urgency that a compensation scheme be established for the survivors, many of whom are now elderly and living in straitened circumstances. We commend Judge Hart and his team for the tremendous work they have done.”

Anyone affected by the report, in Northern Ireland or the Republic, has been encouraged to contact Connect – a professional telephone-based counselling service on the freephone number 00800 477 477 77 (NI) or 1800 477 477 (RoI).

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With reporting by Órla Ryan 

Read: On dramatic day for politics in the North, a senior DUP figure also stood down

Read: Martin McGuinness receives heartfelt tributes from Bertie Ahern and… Ian Paisley Jr

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