Clerical abuse inquiry to be launched in the North

Clerical abuse inquiry to be launched in the North

A major inquiry into the abuse of children in institutions run by the Catholic church and the state is to be launched in the North, it was announced today.

The Stormont Executive confirmed the probe will be phased in over the next two years and will be empowered to compel the release of records and the cooperation of witnesses.

First Minister Peter Robinson and acting deputy First Minister John O'Dowd announced the details of the plan, which follows a study of the issue by a task force set-up last December.

Victims of sexual and physical abuse have recounted harrowing tales of their treatment. The government's plan of action follows inquiries in the Republic which have uncovered shocking evidence of widespread abuse by Catholic clergy.

The North's probe will require special legislation to provide the statutory powers needed to investigate historic cases of abuse.

While it is estimated it could take two years to pass the necessary legal framework, the Stormont leaders have also announced immediate steps.

Their action plan, which will eventually see an apology issued to victims, includes:

* The creation, within around two months, of an Advocacy Service to provide counselling and support for victims and survivors, and to help with issues including tackling possible alcohol problems or other dependencies victims may have developed, or helping them to re-connect with estranged from their families.

* An Acknowledgement Forum will be set up within four to six months. It will provide a private and confidential arena for victims to tell their stories and to have their trauma recognised. Any information on potential abusers who may still pose a threat to children will immediately be passed to special units of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

* Researchers will also be appointed to examine cases and gather documents. This work will start in the near future and precede the establishing of the full statutory inquiry. It has been indicated that this provides a window when institutions will have the chance to voluntarily open up their records, before the full inquiry compels them to do so.

The experts who drew up the phased-in approach to the proposed inquiry have said they examined the experience of the Republic.

They said it is hoped that the stepped approach to the issue will avoid unnecessary delays to victims and survivors receiving swift support.

Compensation may be available to victims, but it is understood there will be a focus on funding services which can meet their needs as they come to terms with their experiences.

The Executive's Junior ministers, Jonathan Bell of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson, left today's special sitting of the Executive at Stormont Castle to brief victims on the details of the plan, before it was made public.

The strategy has been drawn-up after consultations with victims.

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