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Hundreds to testify at Northern Ireland child-abuse probe

The opening session of the independent Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry in Banbridge, Co Down, Jan. 13, 2014. The Inquiry is hearing abuse claims in children's homes and juvenile justice centres, in Northern Ireland, over a period spanning more than seven decades and has the power to compel witnesses and refer evidence to the police for criminal investigation. Its aim is to establish if there were "systemic failings by institutions or the state in their duties towards those children in their care".

Paul Faith/PA

Kate Walmsley has waited 40 years for someone to listen to her story of being abused so badly at a Catholic-run children's home that she has tried to kill herself repeatedly. Now she will finally get her chance as Northern Ireland begins the largest public inquiry into abuse at residential institutions ever undertaken in Britain.

"I thought I would take it to my grave," Ms. Walmsley, 57, said Monday as she arrived at a former courthouse in Banbridge, south of Belfast, for the start of the public hearings. "If I can help one little boy or one little girl, it will be worth it."

She is among more than 300 former residents of 13 orphanages and children's homes across Northern Ireland who will testify at the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry, or HIA. The public hearings into allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse will last until June, 2015. A final report is due the following year and it could recommend compensation.

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The Northern Ireland government set up the inquiry in 2012 after years of intense lobbying from victims' groups. It's being led by Sir Anthony Hart, a retired judge, and it is similar to a sweeping probe in Ireland that concluded in 2009 with a damning report and a government compensation scheme for victims.

More than 400 people, including a couple from Canada, have come forward with allegations to HIA officials and those who are not testifying have filed written statements. Some of the material is being passed on to police who may launch criminal investigations.

"This inquiry is giving a voice to those who feel the system let them down," Christine Smith, the inquiry's senior council, said Monday as the hearings opened. "This inquiry will essentially examine the soul of Northern Ireland society over that period," she added, referrring to the years between 1922 and 1995 when the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

Ms. Smith warned that much of the testimony will be distressing "and indeed harrowing to listen to." She said the hearing will hear allegations of beatings, denigration, forced confinement, inadequate food, improper medical care and bullying. For many witnesses "giving evidence over the coming months will be a very difficult experience."

That won't stop people like John Heany, 55, who spent 10 years in a Catholic-run institution in Londonderry called St. Joseph's Home. Mr. Heany said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by older boys and beaten by nuns, who sometimes hit his feet with a bamboo cane while he was in bed. "The purpose of the whole inquiry has to be that these people are brought to justice," he said standing outside the courthouse Monday. "People sat back and let things happen when they shouldn't have let things happen. They were the adults, we were the children."

He and many others will also testify about the damage done in later life. Mr. Heany said he has had trouble forming relationships and developed a drinking problem.

Ms. Walmsely said she lost all contact with her three brothers and sisters who were also given up by their parents. She spent eight years as a teenager being transferred around several institutions and came out "like an animal from a cage" suffering eating disorders and depression.

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Victims' advocate Margaret McGuckin, who spent eight years in a children's home in Belfast, welcomed the start of the hearings and said that while many of those affected are pushing for compensation and prosecutions, most just want the truth to finally come out. "This is our day," she said.

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