By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The Irish government’s Commission on Child Abuse, which is preparing to investigate charges of years of institutional ill-treatment of children in state and religious-run schools, is examining how it will hear evidence from former inmates who emigrated.
High Court judge Mary Laffoy is heading the three-member Commission that will serve as a form of "truth tribunal" and begin hearings later this year.
Commission secretary Paul Doyle said the hearings and investigation work could take two years.
Groups representing abuse victims in Britain have requested the commission to hold hearings there.
"Our approach is trying to facilitate people who want to tell their stories to the greatest possible extent," Doyle said. "The ins and outs of how that will be worked out are still being considered."
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Doyle said it has yet to be decided whether hearings might be moved abroad or if expenses would be provided for witnesses living as far away as the U.S. and Australia.
"It is very hard to estimate how many people will want to come forward," he said. "Some people will take the view that they want to put it all behind them. They obviously will have strong feelings about what happened to them, but they may not want to reawaken the trauma again."
He said the commission is still in "Phase One" of the government’s brief, which is to examine the terms of reference that have been drafted and to consider the legal implications of them.
"We need to decide whether legislation is required to give the commission powers," Doyle said.
The legal powers would include issues like privilege for witnesses giving evidence, compelling witnesses to attend and powers to demand documents.
Many of those willing to give evidence have stressed that they will only cooperate if there is a guarantee that abusers will not be granted immunity from prosecution in return for agreeing to appear as witnesses.
One of the largest group of institutionally abused, the Survivors of Child Abuse, sought an undertaking on the immunity question on Sept. 2.
"They emphasized they didn’t want this, and Justice Laffoy and myself reiterated what the government had said when the Commission was announced that an amnesty was not being considered," Doyle said.
The SCA is also urging the commission to exhume the bodies of children who died in residential care to establish the cause of death. The organization has unveiled a new white, red, black and gold emblem. It says the white stands for the innocence of the children, the red for blood spilled, the black for their tragic deaths, and the gold for the light that will never fade.
Last May, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has made an unprecedented apology to abuse victims for the country’s "collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue."
Said Ahern: "Too many of our children were denied love, care and security. Abuse ruined their childhoods and has been an ever-present part of their adult lives, reminding them of a time when they were helpless. I want to say to them that we believe that they were gravely wronged and that we must do all we can to overcome the lasting effects of their ordeals."
The government is setting up its own counseling service to help traumatized victims. It is also examining legal changes which would relax the present "lapse of time" restrictions on compensation claims. These only allow victims to lodge court claims for a three-year period after they reach 18.
Dr. Imelda Ryan, director of a child sex abuse clinic attached to a Dublin hospital, and Bob Lewis, a British social services expert, will also serve on the commission.