Comment & Analysis

What the North’s child abuse inquiry reveals
The latest revelations deserve greater attention, writes David Quinn

Another report of another child abuse inquiry was published last week. This time, the inquiry, the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart, dealt with abuse in institutions in Northern Ireland. 

These institutions were run by the Catholic Church, by the state, and by other voluntary bodies such as Barnardo’s and Protestant organisations. The inquiry covered the period 1922 (when partition occurred) until 1995. 

It looked into the case of the notorious Fr Brendan Smyth, one of the worst abusers on this island, Kincora Boys’ Home, which was run by the state, the failure of state authorities to properly regulate or fund the various homes, as well as their failure to properly investigate abuse allegations. It also looked into a scheme, called the ‘Child Migrant Scheme’, that sent at least 138 children under the age of 14 to live and work in Australia. It is a catalogue of shame.

A total of 65 institutions had allegations made against them, but in the end the inquiry settled on 22 institutions, which were the ones against which most allegations were made. 


It invited former residents to come forward and tell their stories to the inquiry, just as similar inquiries in the Republic and elsewhere did, and 526 individuals applied to the inquiry with 493 actually engaging with the inquiry. The remaining applicants decided not to engage with it in the end.

Children’s homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast and Derry stand out because the most allegations were made against these. Of the 493 applicants who engaged with the inquiry, 189 had been in those homes and they spoke of emotional, physical, and sometimes sexual abuse. The sexual abuse was sometimes perpetrated by boys on other boys, sometimes by adult lay people, and sometimes by clergy.

Why do the Sisters of Nazareth stand out? There appear to be several reasons. The big one is that most children in non-state institutions were in institutions run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Indeed, almost all of the non-state institutions (the so-called ‘voluntary’ homes) were run by the Catholic Church. Barnardo’s ran only two small ones, for example. A Protestant organisation called Belfast Central Mission ran one small one.

Another reason is that children in the voluntary homes (‘voluntary’ in the sense that they were run by volunteers such as the sisters) were actually resident in those homes. The majority of children in the care of the state were ‘boarded out’ in foster homes. It is also the case that for the first three decades covered by the inquiry, most children were in non-state-run homes.

Taking 1955 as a representative year from those first few decades, 778 children were in voluntary homes, and of these two-thirds were in homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth, totalling 519. Only 73 children were in the two homes run by Barnardo’s and 27 were in the home run by the Belfast Central Mission.

In 1947, two-thirds of the 1,501 children in care were in homes run by the voluntary sector, a proportion that steadily diminished with the passage of time. Interestingly, Northern Ireland in 1960 had far fewer children per head of population in care than either England or Scotland. The question arises; what happened to children who arguably should have been in care, but were not?

The contrast with the system in the South is striking. To begin with, there were far more children’s institutions (industrial schools etc.) in the South than in the North, even taking into account the different population sizes. The Republic of Ireland during the first decades after Independence ran an institutional system it had inherited from before Independence and kept it going far longer than it should have. The Republic seems to have been peculiarly fond of institutionalising both children and adults. 

The institutional system in the South was also overwhelmingly run by the Catholic Church, whereas in the North the state was a much bigger player. In the North, as we have seen, there was also much less of an inclination to institutionalise children even compared with Scotland or England, never mind the South. It would be good to know the reasons for this, and the consequences. (The total report of the Inquiry runs to over 2,000 pages, so it is not easily absorbed, to put it mildly.)

Foster care

In the North, the state was strongly in favour of placing children in care into foster care, rather than to keep them in institutions. This was probably partly a resources issue. Foster care is expensive and became more prevalent in the South (today a big majority of children in care are in foster care) partly as a result of resources becoming more available.

While children can be abused in foster care, it seems to be far less likely than in institutional settings, Church or state. 

Can we properly compare the safety of children in Catholic institutions with those in other institutions? It seems difficult to do so because so many more were in Catholic institutions than in other institutional settings.

As mentioned, few children in institutions run by non-state organisations were in institutions run by either Protestant organisations, or the likes of Barnardo’s. Abuse, including sexual abuse, occurred in these places too, but was less common because fewer children were in them.

Within the state sector Kincora Boys’ Home was a terrible place. Three child sex abusers worked there.

Mr Hart has made a number of recommendations, including that a memorial be established, an apology be made and compensation be paid out.

It is very unfortunate that the release of this important report was overshadowed by the collapse of the Stormont government, Theresa May’s Brexit speech, and the Inauguration of Donald Trump. It deserves some more attention that it has so far received. The next Stormont government must make sure to give it the attention it merits.