Experts investigating abuse within Northern Ireland children’s homes appealed this week for victims living abroad, chiefly in North America and Australia, to provide testimony so that the full scope of trauma can be documented.

Northern Ireland’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry said it already has received abuse complaints from 271 former residents of about 35 orphanages and state-funded homes where children allegedly suffered sexual or physical harm. The investigation started this year and is supposed to publish findings and recommend compensation for victims by January 2016. It seeks evidence of abuse from 1922, the year of Northern Ireland’s foundation, to 1995.

Virtually all testimony so far has come from people living in Britain or Ireland. But investigators believe many hundreds of former residents have made their homes in the United States, Canada and Australia and want to hear their stories. They particularly suspect Western Australia could be a venue for much testimony, because scores of boys and girls in Northern Ireland state care were resettled there while they were still children.

The lead investigator, Sir Anthony Hart, said his fact-finding team was willing to travel overseas to collect testimony or cover witnesses’ travel expenses to come to Belfast.

Hart said the probe would respect witnesses’ right to privacy and would offer both public and closed-door options for telling their stories.

"We recognize that, for many potential witnesses, reliving their experiences will be very painful and traumatic," said Hart, a retired Northern Ireland judge. "Indeed, some will not have told their closest relatives or friends about the abuse they suffered. If they now live overseas, the thought of contacting the inquiry may seem especially daunting."

Northern Ireland’s government authorized the investigation following similar work in the neighboring Republic of Ireland, where four state-funded investigations from 2004 to 2011 concluded that the Catholic Church engaged in systematic cover-up of child abuse by its officials for decades.

Those reports documented how tens of thousands of children suffered sexual, physical and psychological harm at the hands of parish priests and in Catholic-run residential schools, orphanages and workhouses. They documented how government and police authorities repeatedly deferred to Catholic authority, giving that church effective impunity from prosecution for child rape until the first cases became public in the mid-1990s. A state-funded compensation board over the past decade has provided payments to 14,400 abuse claimants totaling more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion).

But in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom with complex British Protestant and Irish Catholic divisions, no one church was given primary responsibility for care of the young. The investigators say complaints already received cover 19 facilities run by the government, 13 by Catholic religious orders, and three by Protestant churches or secular organizations.

Australia also has launched its own fact-finding hearings this year into the extent of rape and molestation in all state-regulated facilities for children, including schools, nurseries and sports clubs. Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse expects to gather oral testimony from around 5,000 witnesses by 2016.

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