Victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been told they were failed by the state during a long-awaited public apology at Stormont.
Survivors watched on in the Assembly chamber as a minute’s silence was held before five ministers, representing each of the main Stormont parties, offered their apology on behalf of the Government.
Apologies were also delivered by representatives from six institutions that ran facilities where abuse took place, religious orders De La Salle, Sisters of Nazareth, Sisters of St Louis and the Good Shepherd Sisters, as well as Barnardo’s and the Irish Church Missions.
The public apology was recommended in the final report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which was published more than five years ago.
The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse Fiona Ryan acknowledged the pain and suffering of all historical institutional abuse victims and survivors in Northern Ireland.
Speaking in the Stormont Assembly chamber, she said.
“Let us be clear why we are here today and what is being apologised for.
“We are talking about the systemic abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect of children for decades in residential institutions in Northern Ireland. “For this abuse to succeed on this scale requires not only individual abusers and institutions to perpetrate the abuse, but failed oversight and accountability on the part of the public authorities.”
In her apology DUP education minister Michelle McIlveen said: "We neglected you, rejected you, we made you feel unwanted. It was not your fault. The state let you down." Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long said: "We are united in our acceptance of responsibility. The damage experienced by many is not in the past but is a heavy burden they have continued to carry into adulthood."
SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said no apology could make up for the failings of the past. Ulster Unionist health minister Robin Swann said "We want to acknowledge all of you who had the courage to speak up and highlight the most horrendous abuse." Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy, acknowledged that the apologies had taken too long to be delivered. "The apology we offer you is unconditional," he said.
Representatives from the six institutions spoke after the ministers, setting out and apologising for the abuse inflicted on the children in their care.
Each speaker described the “fear, shame and punishment” inflicted upon young people and acknowledged that apologies can only go so far.
Many stressed that things had now changed and pointed to major organisational failings at the time the abuse was perpetrated.
Commenting on the public apology, in a statement Archbishop Eamon Martin said: “On behalf of the Catholic Church in Ireland, I repeat today my unreserved apology to all those who suffered from their horrific experience in Church-run institutions, and to their loved ones.”
“Their reactions to today’s apologies must be heard and respected. Words are not enough and will never undo the harm that has been caused.”
He said: “The misuse of power and status within the Church; the prevailing culture of judgement, guilt and shame surrounding sexuality; and, a lack of Christian empathy and compassion towards the poor and those less fortunate, blinded many in the Church to the shocking neglect, sins and crimes being perpetrated in their midst. Shame on us.”
However, survivors rejected the apology as too little, too late . Jon McCourt, of Survivors North West, said he felt representatives of the institutions “failed miserably”. He urged them to demonstrate their atonement by contributing to the redress fund for survivors. “There was no emotion, there was no ownership, there was qualification,” he said.
“Forget about having conversations and just start contributing to the redress fund.”
Margaret McGuckin, of victims’ group Savia, said the Executive Office “made a fool out of us” with regard to long delays in acting on the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, adding that many victims are now “dead and gone” after the long wait for an apology.
Inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hart outlined a series of recommendations after he disclosed shocking levels of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in the period 1922 to 1995.
The recommendations included that those abused in state-, church- and charity-run homes should be offered compensation as well as an official apology from Government and the organisations which ran the residential facilities where it happened and a memorial. – PA