By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — People who emigrated after suffering childhood abuse in Irish institutions will have their expenses paid if they wish to travel home to testify before a unique two-tier commission set up to probe back 60 years.
At the first session of the commission last week, chairwoman High Court judge Mary Laffoy outlined arrangements for witnesses traveling from abroad when she delivered a 58-page opening statement explaining how it will conduct its business over the next two years.
Irish people now living abroad in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have made complaints about institutional childhood abuse to the authorities.
"Where witnesses who wish to give evidence are currently living abroad, the commission will refund reasonable travel costs incurred, calculated by reference to the cost of an economy/budget airline ticket fare, or contribution of equal amount to a higher fare ticket," she said.
The commission will also refund accommodation and subsistence expenses of up to £75 a day.
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If the commission is satisfied a witness has to be accompanied by a companion, he or she can also apply to have the companion’s expenses paid. If the witness is traumatized and needs to be accompanied by a professional counselor, fees of up to £155 a day will be met.
The commission was established after an unprecedented apology on behalf of the state last year.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern acknowledged that abuse had ruined the childhood of many. Ahern apologized for "our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue. Too many of our children were denied love, care and security."
Many of the victims had reported abuse in orphanages, reform schools and care homes when they were children but were not believed.
Ahern spoke out following a series of media and police investigations uncovered a level of abuse that caused widespread shock in the country.
The screening of TV documentaries led to a flood of calls to counseling helplines from traumatized victims.
Extensive inquiries by police are ongoing and many of the staff involved are members of religious bodies. Several Catholic Orders have already apologized to victims.
Laffoy and five other child-care professionals from Ireland and the UK have been given wide-ranging powers to compel witnesses to attend and force the production of documentation.
She explained the commission will work on two levels. It will investigate abuse claims and also intends that the hearing process "will be a source of healing for survivors."
While it will mainly probe allegations dating back to 1940, it can also investigate before then if necessary.
She said abuse being investigated would not just involve physical and sexual abuse. It would also include neglect and emotional abuse.
At one level, a "confidential" committee will sit in private and be a sympathetic forum to listen to victims’ stories of their experiences while preserving their anonymity.
A second "investigative" committee will fully probe the allegations, call witnesses and cross-examine those appearing before it.
After initial investigation of complaints, this committee can hold hearings in public.