A number of survivors of alleged child abuse at St Joseph’s Home for Boys in Derry are to relive their stories to the Historical Insitutional Abuse Inquiry.
In recent years, the ‘Journal’ has covered a series of heartbreaking stories of the abuse of children - including sexual, physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect - at the Termonbacca home.
A number of those who decided to finally go public about their experiences in Sisters of Nazereth-run institutions eventually joined forces to form a campaign group which helped establish The Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Act.
Now they are calling on their fellow ‘homeboys’ to “open up” in an effort to not only ensure those responsible for the abuse are held to account but to finally help them repair their own lives by “lifting the lid” on festering memories.
John Heaney, who alleges he was sexually and physically abused on an almost daily basis, told the ‘Journal’ this week: “We’re asking anybody and everybody who has this on their minds to come forward and say their piece. We’re urging them to get it off their chests.”
The Derry man, who was eleven months old when he entered the home, became involved in SAVIA (Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse) to help set up the inquiry to “allow the truth to be heard”.
“I have no problems telling the stories of what happened to me. I was sexually abused by an older boy in the Termonbacca home and I was physically abused by nuns.
“I was given good hidings with a bamboo cane on my feet and a hard strapping every now and then. The sexual abuse was happening on a regular basis from the age of seven onwards. You could be talking quite a few times a week that I was forced into the abuse. It’s not easy when somebody bigger than you grabs you by the hair,” he added.
John’s abuse was to continue until he left the care home at the age of eleven.
“I was happy to get out because I was going to a beautiful family, a family who respected, understood, cared and loved me. At the same time, I was sad knowing that my fellow comrades at Termonbacca were going through the same things I was going through.”
John and his friends have remained in touch over the years and together have helped achieve the inquiry. Now he wants to help others.
“We want to tell them that, when they do come forward, they will have all the support they need. They can let the volcano explode because it will calm down eventually. Getting it out of your system is the hardest part, speaking about it for the first time is tough. I’ve been going through counselling now for ten years and I know I will never be cured but the positive thing about it is that I have moved on from that struggle all those years ago. I didn’t know where to turn, I had nobody to talk to, I lay in bed for hours with a blanket over my head. I still have days like that every now and then but I know better now how to manage it and I would encourage all those people to come forward because it does get easier.”
John hopes that the inquiry will lead to the punishment of those responsible for the abuse. “My personal hope is that the people who left the scars on my mind are in some way punished by the law. If that is not the case then I hope at least there is some kind of redress in terms of compensation for us for the lack of opportunities we have had and for the lack of opportunities our children have had - because they have had to struggle with our struggles and it hasn’t been easy for them either. It is very important that those organisations - who I am glad now are legally bound to hand over the information they have - at some stage down the line are punished for what happened to us.”
Jon McCourt, a leading member of SAVIA, has worked closely with his ‘homeboy’ friend John Heaney and other survivors such as Margaret McGuckian to help establish the inquiry in law. “Of the 25 clauses in that Bill, we have drafted probably 20 of them, we were co-operated with all the way,” he said.
However, for Jon, too, it’s been a long road, having lived with the memory of child abuse “for decades”. “When I saw my friend Jon Meehan at Stormont when the inquiry was announced, I saw him as the child I knew, even though I hadn’t laid eyes on him since being in the home. We recognised each other as numbers, he knew me immediately as number ten - that’s all we were in the system.”
The abuse Jon suffered at the hands of nuns and other boys in the home involved “all the strands being investigated by the inquiry” including sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect.