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Abuse victims offered new healing process;International;Briefing

IRELAND: John Walshe on a new commission set up to hear evidence from those who suffered in the care of religious orders

The Irish government has apologised to victims of sexual and physical abuse in schools and residential centres and is setting up an independent commission to hear the stories of those who have suffered.

It is also establishing a nationwide counselling service to assist those still traumatised by the experience.

Religious orders, including the Christian Brothers, who ran some of the residential centres where the worst cases of abuse took place, have promised to co-operate with the commission as part of the process leading to "reconciliation and forgiveness".

For the past month, the country has been convulsed by the aptly named States of Fear television programme which, week after week, exposed harrowing details of the extent of the abuse in some centres.

It is the latest in a series of television and newspaper disclosures of abuse, mainly in residential centres for orphans, those from broken homes or those in trouble with the law.

Much of it took place in the 1970s and 1980s but it continued in some institutions. The cumulative effect of the various reports has been a serious erosion of the traditionally high standing of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The final States of Fear programme last week was shown hours after the Cabinet discussed a report from a sub-committee chaired by the education minister, Micheal Martin.

The commission will begin its work immediately and its first task will be to decide its own operating procedures and what legislative powers it needs. The government has given an assurance that the necessary legislation will be enacted if the commission seeks the power to compel witnesses to come forward.

It will be able to hear instances of abuse going back to the 1940s, or earlier if deemed appropriate. The first hearings will probably begin in the autumn.

The fact that abuse in schools and elsewhere comes within the remit of the commission would suggest that large numbers of people will come forward. Corporal punishment was officially prohibited in Irish schools and institutions in 1982 but there have been allegations of excessive use of physical punishment since.

The government has also decided to alter the Statute of Limitations to allow adults who suffered sexual abuse as children to come forward - at present, tight legal time constraints prevent many victims from seeking compensation.

There are 174 cases of alleged abuse pending in state-funded institutions, many run by the Catholic Church, and some legal experts predict a flood of new claims.

The government, however, is playing down the compensation issue, saying that what is important is that the "healing process" for the victims should begin through the commission.

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