Derry abuse survivor Jon McCourt is the man behind the Acknowledgement Forum of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry - “the first it’s kind”.
Mr McCourt, a former Termonbacca ‘Homeboy’, was the brains behind the element of the inquiry set up to hear the horror stories of those who suffered abuse while they were children in care between 1922 and 1995.
The Forum focuses on the experiences of each individual and they are allowed to tell their stories in a relaxed environment and in confidence. Survivors can then decide whether they feel they are prepared to give evidence to the statutory inquiry in the courtroom.
“It was an idea I put forward during the formulation of the inquiry,” said Mr McCourt, a founding member of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse which successfully campaigned for the inquiry.
“The idea was to get survivors in a room and give them the opportunity to tell the truth about their experiences in care homes and to be listened to, accepted and acknowledged. To me, the Forum is even more important than the statutory part of the inquiry because, for many, it will be the first opportunity to tell of the abuse they suffered, to tell of experiences that have been bottled up for many decades.”
Mr McCourt, who works with Derry’s peace and reconciliation group, has already had experience of the challenges facing witnesses in high profile tribunals from his involvement in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
“I was involved in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry where people had to walk into a room to be confronted by lawyers and challenged on what they said. That will not happen in the Acknowledgement Forum - everyone who speaks will be listened and allowed to tell their stories in their own way.”
He said that survivors can also be confident that “nothing from the Forum will become public knowledge”.
“Information will only be used anonymously to inform the statutory inquiry of where it should be looking.”
Mr McCourt said the idea for the Forum took shape from “looking at” the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the trauma experienced by witnesses giving evidence at the Bloody Sunday inquiry in Derry.
Norah Gibbons, one of four panel members on the Acknowledgment Forum, was in Derry on Wednesday to explain its workings. The former Director of Advocacy at Barnardos in Ireland and a Commissioner of the Ryan Inquiry into institutional child abuse, told the ‘Journal’ that the Forum has been busy since beginning its work in October last year.
“By Friday of last week, the Forum has listened to the experiences of 91 people who were in institutional care under the terms of reference of the Historical Abuse Inquiry. Meetings of the Forum have been held in Derry, Belfast, and around the UK.
“So far, there have been four weeks when we have held meetings here in Derry, and we have seen 20 people at those meetings. We are very conscious of the commitment each applicant makes when they fill in the application form and we work to see each person as soon as is possible.”