Victims of historical abuse heard apologies from six separate institutions on Friday, as representatives stood in the Assembly to express their sorrow at what happened in the past.
Profound apologies and regret were offered to victims of historical institutional abuse by representatives of the institutions.
The representatives from 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, admitted that words could only do so much to overcome the pain felt by victims over successive decades.
Survivors watched 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.
Speakers from each institution followed, speaking for about five minutes each and directly addressing the victims.
Br Francis Manning, from De La Salle, spoke first and specifically acknowledged failings at Rubane House and St Patrick’s Training School.
He said his organisation accepted that there were children in their care “subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and to excessive physical punishment”.
“We accept that we had a responsibility to prevent this abuse occurring and acknowledge that we did not take sufficient action to investigate allegations of abuse and ensure prosecution where appropriate.
“These serious failures are a matter of profound regret to the De La Salle brothers.
“We also accept failings in the education and the adequate preparations for boys after care.
“Expectations were sometimes so low that children left the institution being unable to read and write.”
He spoke about the “stigma of shame” that had left lasting damage on boys and men.
“We cannot undo it but we wish to say we are genuinely sorry.
He said that this was the first step to repair the damage done to people and that the organisation had learned lessons from the mistakes of the past.
“We recognise that our actions and sometimes, inaction, sometimes caused sincere hurt.
“For our part, we wish to say we are sorry and wish to offer our sincere apology,” he concluded.
Sr Cornelia Walsh, from the Sisters of Nazareth, said they were offering a “heartfelt apology” to victims.
She said that there was “systemic physical abuse and that bullying was prevalent”.
Sr Walsh said that they accepted that there was a “regime of excessive chores and this amounted to a form of abuse”.
“When you sought our help to prevent physical or sexual abuse, we did not believe you,” she told those listening at the Assembly.
“We acknowledge the harshness of strict regime.
“We cannot banish all the hurt that you may feel and we know that words alone can never remove this burden.”
She spoke of the pain of being “separated from those you should have been closest to”.
“We learn, with great sadness, how difficult it was to shake off that stigma.”
She said that victims had to “overcome so much” and that many lived with a “deep sense of enduring loss”.
She spoke of systemic physical abuse at the school and that abuse came from sisters, lay staff members and other young residents.
“We are indeed sorry for this.
“To those of you who suffered at any time while at St Joseph’s and are still carrying that pain, we say we are especially sorry that when you were a child or a teenager, you did not always feel safe or believed while at St Joseph’s.
“Instead of meeting love and encouragement, you sometimes met the opposite – harshness and a lack of love and understanding.”
She said it was “truly shameful” that vulnerable young people did not know where to turn for support.
“We recognise that memories lie like scars on the heart.
“To those who felt frightened while in St Joseph’s and did not feel safe, I, on behalf of the Sisters of St Louis, say that we are truly sorry, unreservedly so, for these ways and any other ways in which we failed you.”
Cait O’Leary, from the Good Shepherd Sisters, acknowledged that “mistakes were made in the care we provided to girls and young women”.
“The practice of changing names on admission represented poor practice and should not have happened.
“In one of our institutions, there was a practice of reading out misdemeanours and humiliating you in front of others. We unreservedly accept that this amounted to emotional abuse and deeply regret that you experienced this practice.”
She said that children did not receive the appropriate care while in Good Shepherd Sisters’ institutions.
“It was not acceptable that you were expected to engage in industrial work,” she said.
Ms O’Leary said that they accepted completely that failings occurred.
“We apologise unreservedly that we fell short in our care during those years.”
Michele Janes, of Barnardo’s, said she wanted victims to know that the organisation had listened to their stories.
She said: “We know now there were times when we failed to query some of the behaviours that staff displayed and when concerns about staff behaviour were reported by you or identified by other members of staff, we did not use the systems or processes we had in place robustly enough to ensure your voice was heard.
“We should have ensured that those responsible should have been removed from their roles immediately.
“We acknowledge that the organisational failures at the time led to the abuse as a child you experienced living with us.”
She said that the organisation had met victims.
“I reflected on the fear that was described to me, the fear that came from a look, a word, a noise, an action, from those who were supposed to protect you.”
Ms Janes also said that Barnardo’s had learned from those failings of the past.
Reverend Mark Jones, representing the Irish Church Missions, said his organisation had run the Manor House Home in Lisburn.
He offered a profound apology to victims of sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s.
He said: “These were crimes that could have been detected and should have been prevented.
“We recognise that such violations robbed you of your childhood and that you continue to live with the consequences to this day.”
He apologised for the “treatment of bedwetters in the 1940s, co-operating in the sending of boys to Australia in November 1950 under the Child Migrants Scheme and the poor condition of the home in the 1950s”.
“We recognise your courage in coming forward,” he said to victims.
“Our trustees, management and staff failed you while you were entrusted to our care.
“We offer this unreserved apology to those who suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse while resident in Manor House Home.”