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Rodney Edwards: How one brave man walked into our newspaper office to uncover shocking sex abuse cases

The Fermanagh journalist details how he and the victims are exposing wrongdoing and seeking the truth. It is not just his job, but his duty, he writes.

Rodney Edwards Journalist and Deputy Editor, The Impartial Reporter

For most of 2019, Rodney Edwards has been writing about child abuse that had become an ‘open secret’ in his home county of Fermanagh during The Troubles. Here, he writes about his newspaper’s coverage – and the men and women who have spoken to him to bring their abusers to justice. 

AS BEAMS OF sunshine shone through the window of her house, Emma (not her real name) closed the curtains as quickly as she had opened them. She could not bear to feel the sun on her face.

It brought back distressing memories of when she was sexually abused by up to 15 men in homes in County Fermanagh less than 20 years previously. Edging into the house, the sunlight would light up the faces of the evil men who took away her innocence.

Now a dark cloud hangs over this place, the most westerly constituency in the United Kingdom and sitting alongside Border Counties in the Republic of Ireland. 

Emma had been allegedly sold for sex by her childminder from the age of four in the place where she should have been safe. 

Nobody has yet been arrested, charged or prosecuted for the horrific attacks allegedly inflicted on this little girl and others in what is one of Northern Ireland’s most shocking accounts of historical child sex abuse. 

It was one of the most shocking sex abuse cases to have emerged in The Impartial Reporter newspaper after one brave man walked into our office on Enniskillen’s East Bridge Street in March to claim he had been abused as part of a suspected paedophile ring more than 30 years ago. 

He changed the conversation and the dynamic in a rural county and prompted victim after victim to come forward to tell their stories. Now over 60 people have been in touch. 

There was the teenager who said he was abused by his friend’s father, the woman abused by her own brother, the schoolboy allegedly raped 12 times on a school bus by ex-RAF man David Sullivan whose body was buried near the Fermanagh/Cavan Border two years after he went missing. 

In that windswept, isolated bog near Belcoo lay the former school bus driver who we now know was responsible for a litany of sex attacks against his young passengers. He had been brutally murdered, possibly in an attack motivated by revenge. 

Sullivan (51) spent much of his time driving his white, specially adapted Hyundai at all hours of the day visiting places such as scenic Lough Navar near Derrygonnelly, outside Enniskillen. 

He was something of a nomad, a creature of the night who never slept for more than four hours. He had no siblings, just an elderly mother to whom he spoke regularly. 

On 3 February 2001, his remains were discovered by a man walking his dog, a year and five months after he had gone missing. Sullivan was at that time suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. 

Almost 20 years on, Sullivan’s killer has never been found and while there were always allegations about sexual impropriety when he was alive, including his possible links with local businessmen and professional people to a suspected paedophile ring in Enniskillen during the 1980s, it is only now with the passage of time that the true extent of activities can be revealed. He was never charged or convicted for any of the alleged crimes. 

John (not his real name) told the Impartial Reporter how Sullivan first raped him on his school bus when he was 12 years old, attacking him in a lay-by early one morning near Lisnaskea. 

John recalled Sullivan telling him, as he looked over his thick glasses: ‘I can do what I want.’

“He would appear from anywhere and at any time. It was like a game of cat and mouse. He would have taken the first victim he found. That was me, too many times,” John said. 

More than 10 alleged Sullivan victims have been in touch after John spoke out and the revelations show no sign of stopping.  

In the small playground of St Paul’s Primary School in Irvinestown the boisterous sound of children playing fills the air. 

Children in blue uniforms squeeze in every second of playtime. Inside, books of all colours and toys are propped up against the glass of the old cream and blue coloured building. 

It is an innocent scene. Outside the gates on Lisnarick Road, however, stands 54-year-old Lynn. Bowing her head, she smiles, but her eyes are sad. 

“I was sexually abused inside that school when I was a child,” she says, wiping away a tear, as she alleges that she was abused when she was eight by a now deceased ex-principal and former Fermanagh GAA chairman John McElholm. 

Over 20 people have been in touch with me after Lynn (not her real name) came forward to make similar allegations.  

Most recently it was claimed a gang of criminals allegedly drugged and prostituted teenagers from a children’s home in Killadeas almost 20 years go. 

It is claimed the children were taken to other parts of Northern Ireland where they were drugged and repeatedly raped. 

Brindley House was a home catering for young people with emotional and psychological needs. 

Staff members who spoke to the newspaper said they tried to intervene to stop the abuse but were threatened by the criminals involved. 

Laura (not her real name) an alleged victim of the abuse said that she and up to 12 other young girls were raped by up to 13 men. 

She said that the authorities knew about the abuse “but were too scared to do anything because of the men involved”. 

She said she was 13 when the abuse began. 

“It was child prostitution. You were being prostituted out,” she said. 

Fermanagh has a past that poses many difficult questions for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). 

The common denominator in all of this is that almost none of these alleged perpetrators have ended up in jail. Victims feel left down and powerless. 

Bombs and bullets were not the only means of destroying the lives of Catholics and Protestants on an inconceivable scale during the Troubles. 

If allegations are to be believed, scores of children regardless of religion were repeatedly sexually abused while a beleaguered police force struggled to keep up. 

It is claimed sex abuse was used almost as a weapon against children and that a veil of secrecy ensured such depravity was kept hidden for decades. Until now.  

The life stories of the woman who says she was abused by a priest in a bookstore during confession at her school or the two women who claim as young Protestant girls were abused by Orangemen decades ago would prove that abuse does not discriminate. 

Sara and Jackie (not their real names) claim the Orange Order were made aware of the allegations against several of its members “several times” over the years but “did nothing about it”.

They claim attempts were made by the Orange Order to “protect lodge members” after the pair claimed, independently, that they had been sexually abused and even raped by several men who are still members of the institution.

A third person, Sara’s father, claims he resigned from his lodge when he was made aware of the allegations in 1998 and says the Orange Order is now “refusing” to allow him to re-join a different lodge because “they are protecting the abusers”.

“The Orange Order knew what was going on because at least six of its members watched as I was sexually abused by others in an around an Orange Hall.

“Those men laughed while I was touched and other men used not just their hands but their penises to abuse me. They thought it was a bit of fun, but it was abuse,” she said.

Sara says “none of the Orangemen tried to stop it”.

“The Orange Order is absolutely rotten to the core,” she added.

The Orange Order described the allegations as “serious” and said it would work with police on any investigation.

As a result of our continued coverage, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has set up a specialist team to review every single case after a personal intervention by the then Chief Constable George Hamilton. 

The onus is now on the police and the Public Prosecution Service to bring these men and women to justice. 

This week police investigating the claims said the force will not be pushed by the media into making premature arrests, a senior officer has said.

Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray defended the police’s handling of the allegations after being asked at a Westminster committee why no one had been detained and questioned.

DUP MP Ian Paisley asked Gray for an update on the investigation as she appeared alongside Chief Constable Simon Byrne at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

“The investigation is being led by the Public Protection Branch – the investigative process is absolutely moving forward,” she said.

So some of those have been quite lengthy and they have had to be, to provide the absolutely essential support for the victims.

“But I am content that we, as a police service and within the department, are moving forward with those investigations and we have had to do those at the investigative pace that is thorough, victims-centred and not, I suppose, necessarily to be pushed by the media around this, when we have to ensure we have best evidence before we move to the point of executive action, which should it be an arrest and questioning phase.”

It is, of course, deeply disturbing to uncover the dirty secrets of a place I call home. It is concerning to have received threatening and intimidating messages by those who would prefer these stories were not told.

But it is heartening to see the response from the vast majority of the good and decent people who live in this community. There have been public rallies and protests on the street, there are public meetings planned in the coming weeks and there is support for those alleged victims like never before.

And that, for me, is the fundamental motivation for doing this; it is vital that these brave people are given a voice. We will keep doing that. 

This is not unique to Fermanagh and is a widespread problem across this island and I have received claims of historic child sexual abuse everywhere from County Donegal to County Galway.

But I can’t do it all my own, as much as I would like.

Exposing wrongdoing and seeking the truth isn’t just our job, it is our duty, especially when it is in our own backyard.

The greatest resource for any newsroom is trust from your readers, listeners or viewers.

Journalists must always comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, especially at home.  

See more of Rodney Edwards’ coverage of the story here

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About the author:

Rodney Edwards  / Journalist and Deputy Editor, The Impartial Reporter

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