Child abuse revelations illustrate North’s troubled soul

Litany of horrific evidence points to multiple failures throughout society

Nelson Mandela’s words were quoted on the opening day of the North’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”

Nelson Mandela’s words were quoted on the opening day of the North’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 01:00

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Nelson Mandela’s words were quoted to good effect by senior counsel Christine Smith on the opening day of the North’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry which completed its first five-week block of public hearings yesterday. It will resume hearing from witnesses in about four weeks’ time after working in private session in the interim.

Society as a whole in the North is not emerging from this awful saga with much credit.

There have been disturbing and lurid accounts of beatings, sex abuse incidents, public humiliation of bed-wetters and children forced to eat their own vomit. Witnesses have told of fainting from persistent hunger and of drinking water from drains such was the alleged level of failure to provide for them by the Sisters of Nazareth.

The accounts have been disturbing and shocking as much for the apparent denial of basic human kindness and love for clearly vulnerable children as for the alleged treatment handed out by those charged with their care.

The witness evidence, especially in the early public sessions of the inquiry which dealt with those placed in homes in the 1950s and 1960s, points to children being treated as somehow less than human. They told of arriving at either St Joseph’s home, Termonbacca, in Derry or Nazareth House in the city, confused, often frightened and clueless as to why they were there. Some were taken there by people they barely knew.

Treatment
Accounts of their treatment, their meagre accommodation, discipline and regime now sound Dickensian in the present-day context. Many witnesses have broken down in distress. One was unable to complete his evidence and had to leave. It is not surprising that the Sisters of Nazareth have already apologised for their failings which have been laid bare for all to see.

The tone of witness hearings has changed in recent days. They began with a litany of horrors which have been likened to concentration camps. But more recently, there have contradictory accounts of what went on. Allegations have been levelled, some of them particularly serious, and flatly denied. Not all accounts appear to add up. The inquiry will have its work cut out making sense of it all.