Child sex abuse in Fermanagh was an ‘open secret’, claim victims

The PSNI is investigating scores of allegations of abuse across the county over decades

In the small playground of St Paul's Primary School in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh the boisterous sound of children playing fills the air.

Children in blue uniforms squeeze in every last 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 John McElholm.

“He rubbed my shoulders. Then he worked down under my clothes and chest area, then proceeded to place his hands under my underwear. He molested me, again and again.”

Several times a week, she says, McElholm summoned her to his office. Once inside, he would close the door, tilt the venetian blinds so that nobody could see in and abuse her. Then she was sent back to class.

Once regarded as a pillar of the community, McElholm, who died aged 82 in a nursing home, faces abuse allegations from 20 people who have come forward to local newspaper, the Impartial Reporter.

The abuse, she claims, did not stay at school. Lynn alleges that she was abused by him at Enniskillen’s Lakeland Forum leisure centre while teaching her to swim.

Widely respected in life, McElholm was chairman of Fermanagh GAA for 26 years, along with being a member of the NI Arts Council, Sports Council and president of the local St Vincent de Paul Society.

The first allegation of historic child sex abuse in Fermanagh came when one man walked into the Impartial's office on East Bridge Street in Enniskillen and has prompted a flood of other allegations since.

So far, scores of people have come forward to make allegations they were abused over decades by up to 60 people across the county. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating.

‘Open secret’

Remembering her years as a pupil in St Paul’s, Kate (not her real name) claims McElholm summoned her and about five other players on her camogie team members to his office.

“He lined us up in order of size and groped the five of us. He touched our breasts and put his hand up our skirts. If we wore tights he put his hand up our skirt to our bottom,” said the 55-year-old.

“It was an open secret in the town,” says Kate. “It was accepted, as he was treated as a god in the community.”

Another victim, Maureen (not her real name), who claims that she and her sister were abused by McElholm in the 1970s, wonders: “I ask myself a question that has been haunting me for years. Why did I wait so long? Now in my fifties I kept that secret for over 40 years.”

In another case, not connected with St Pauls or McElholm, Emma (not her real name) claims to have screamed at such a high pitch while allegedly being raped that her abuser pressed her head into the bed and almost smothered her to death in a house near the Fermanagh-Cavan Border.

She was around eight years old and claims she had spent the past four years being sold for sex by her childminder to up to 15 men, a case that is now subject to a major police investigation.

Another child, a boy, a few years older than her, was abused, too, she says: “One of them stripped me and pushed my face down into the bed, then he violently abused me. It was excruciating.”

Decades on, she says she can still smell the body odour and breath of the first man whom she says sexually abused her when she was four: “I was like the lamb to the slaughter,” said Emma.

She says she was molested repeatedly as her childminder watched from the doorway. Frequently she recalls being given sweets by the woman afterwards or jam sandwiches.

“Sometimes when the abuse was going on I would focus on the lamp or the swirling detail on the ceiling. I used to see if there were shapes on them, like cloud watching, to take my mind off it.”

Another time, says Emma, there was a red dot blinking in the small, dark room inside the rural bungalow. It was a video camera.

Both Emma, then about seven years old, and the young boy who was about 11, were driven to this house by the childminder. She was wearing her glittery wellies, while he was in his green wellies. There was another child in the room.

“The house smelled strongly of peat,” said Emma. “We were brought through the front door and put into a room.”

“There were three men waiting for us, there was a wee girl with them and to this day I do not know her name, or two of the men’s names. I know one man’s name. I remember someone saying ‘which one is first’ and I was pushed into the middle of the room.”

“I remember looking back and could see a red dot blinking which I now know was a video camera. It was sitting on top of a chest of drawers,” she said.

“You first,” shouted the man, as he took off her clothes.

“The wee girl was wearing pink trousers, she was trying to hide in the corner.”

Emma claims she was raped by all three of the men until she passed out, again, she says, as the childminder watched.

Two alleged victims claim that they were sexually abused as children by members of the Orange Order, and that the Orange Order did nothing when informed of the abuse.

One of the alleged victims, referred to as Sara to protect her identity, said she was raped by a member of the Orange Order as a child after singing in church.

She claimed that she approached church leaders and the Orange Order with her allegations and that they did “absolutely nothing”.

“The church sent me to a religious counsellor, I believe his title was, and he wanted to teach me how to pray for forgiveness so I never went back,” Sara claimed.

‘Ruined my life’

Sisters Pauline and Anne (not their real names) recently discovered that they had been abused by the same man in their home in Lisnaskea over 30 years ago.

Both shaking, they recalled how the relative, named by five different alleged victims, sexually molested them between the ages of seven and 10 as they lay in the bed they shared.

“He could sleep in the same bed as us because he was a relative, I suppose there was trust back then. When mummy and daddy were out he’d get in the bed beside us. That’s when he’d abuse us,” said Pauline.

“He has ruined my life and is still walking the streets,” said Anne. “The police need to arrest him, he needs to be put before the courts and behind bars.”

Another man allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl sparking pregnancy fears at her school more than 30 years ago and allegedly abused her older brother too.

Helen and Kevin (not their real names) claim they were sexually abused by the same man from the education sector. The RUC finally ruled that there was a lack of evidence to justify a prosecution.

Now 42, Helen said she believed for a time that she was pregnant after she was repeatedly raped by a man whose children she babysat and who offered to be her “boyfriend” when she was still a child herself.

Kevin, now 44, claims the same man piled him with vodka and made him watch pornographic videos before abusing him. He also claims that he was abused by a farmer and others when he was 15.

“I remember him saying ‘go to sleep for an hour and I’ll wake you up and take you home’. I remember wakening and noticed my trousers were down and he was abusing me,” he says.

Helen, who is now a parent, remembers being told that there would be “consequences” if she told her parents.

“Later I would discover that my period was late and I thought I was pregnant,” she said. She told two of her teachers, who later alerted the police.

For Kevin, too, the past never goes away: “He forced me to do what he said. After he sexually abused me he said if I ever told anyone what had happened he would injure me badly. I can still remember the pain.”

‘Little surprise’

The fear faced by victims is a common theme amongst those who have come forward, prompted by allegations against Enniskillen bus driver David Sullivan who was later murdered and buried in a Border bog near Belcoo almost 20 years ago.

Sullivan is alleged to have drugged and raped numerous children. One man today says that Sullivan abused him a dozen times on his bus when he was 12.

Another says he was taken as a 15-year-old to a flat, where he forced him to watch pornography before being abused. Yet another, today mentally and physically scarred, says he dropped allegations against Sullivan after the RUC allegedly advised his family to do so.

Specialist detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Public Protection Branch have set up a special task force to investigate the allegation.

Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew met officers recently, describing the meeting as "useful" and adding that it is "imperative that the investigation is robust and thorough".

Six months after the first claims were reported, however, there has yet to be an arrest, which led Democratic Unionist Party's Lord Maurice to complain of a "lacklustre approach" by the PSNI.

“I assure victims, I pledge to continue demanding the PSNI and other agencies provide the answers which you deserve but to date have not been forthcoming,” he says.

Counselling psychologist Dr David Morrison from Enniskillen has described the testimonies over the last six months as "extraordinary" but says they come as "little surprise" to experts like him.

“Child sexual abuse has been, and remains, a silent and hidden epidemic,” he told The Irish Times.

In Northern Ireland last year, the PSNI recorded 2,036 sexual offences against under 18s; 472 of these were against children aged four to eight. By this time next week another 40 children will have reported a sexual offence to police.

“These statistics are simply the tip of the iceberg,” said Morrison.

Research by the NSPCC reveals that one in 20 young people have experienced child sexual abuse involving physical contact. For sexual abuse with or without physical contact – which includes offences like flashing – this figure rises to one in six.

“One of the cruel ironies of child sexual abuse is that we train our children to beware of ‘stranger danger’, yet over 90 per cent of abusers are known to their victim.

“Most victims are therefore betrayed by the very people they thought they could trust. This can result in confusion, fear and a loss of self-confidence,” he said.

“Seasons come and seasons go, but the pain never really goes away. I wish I could lose this burden,” said Lynn.

“My childhood was taken by someone who should have been keeping me and so many others safe,” she said.

Silent No More: Fermanagh’s Abused Children will air on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle next Sunday (October 6th) at 12.30pm, researched by Rodney Edwards, deputy editor of the Impartial Reporter