'Regret' over Nazareth House abuse compensation

By Mark Daly
BBC Scotland Investigations Correspondent

image captionLord McConnell said issued an apology to victims of the abuse in 2004

The former Scottish First Minister Lord McConnell has told of his regret that almost ten years on since he made a landmark apology to historic child abuse victims in Scotland, they have yet to see redress.

In an interview with BBC Scotland, Lord McConnell said there had been "absolutely no progress" on compensation for victims, and called on the government to "do the right thing".

Potentially thousands of adults who were abused in Scotland's care homes have been unable to pursue civil damages because they are "time-barred" under Scots Law.

Abuse survivors and campaigners want Holyrood to change the law or follow in the footsteps of the Irish Government which has paid more than a billion euros to victims.

In 2004, then first Minister Jack McConnell made a "full and sincere" apology to Scotland's child abuse victims on behalf of the nation.

Speaking to BBC Scotland's The Investigation, Lord McConnell said he hoped the apology would be the first step towards full redress.

He said: "There have been some things that have happened that have taken forward a strategy to help those who have suffered as a result of this historic abuse.

"But there has been absolutely no progress on compensation, and on the time-bar, and I think it's deeply regrettable.

"I suspect it is because the ministers involved were not strong enough to stand up to anybody who was expressing caution to them but I can't know that for a fact. All I know is they haven't made the right decisions."

Helen Holland, 53, is one of the abuse "survivors" who has campaigned for a change in law.

'Sexual abuse'

She suffered physical torture and sexual abuse at a Nazareth House, Kilmarnock, from 1964 to 1974. The care home was run by the Catholic Order, the Sisters of Nazareth, and Helen's chief abuser was a nun called Sister Kevin.

She told how once as a punishment she was taken by Sister Kevin out to the outhouse and thrown in an industrial tumble drier which was switched on.

"I thought I'm either going to be badly burned or I'm going to be knocked out with my head hitting the bottom of this thing or I'm not going to be able to breathe.

"Somebody help me but I knew the other children couldn't do anything because the nun was standing there.

"Sexual abuse started at the age of eight until the age of 11.

"And I remember thinking 'what kind of horrible place is this?' I used to…pray that my dad would come and get us, so that somebody would know what was happening and would come and rescue us. But nobody ever did."

Helen finally plucked up the courage to go to the police 30 years after she left Nazareth House. But the Crown Office decided not to prosecute because the nun was too old.

Helen was one of around 1,000 abuse victims whose civil damages claim collapsed after two test cases failed at the Court of Session then the House of Lords in 2008. The cases were ruled to be time-barred.

Under the Prescription and Limitations Scotland Act 1973, anybody coming forward with historic allegations must do so within three years of their 16th birthday.

Lawyer Cameron Fyfe, who brought the test cases, insists it's a "completely unfair rule."

He said: "The three year rule applies quite rightly to road accidents and accidents at work, but whoever drafted the legislation in the first place didn't contemplate the possibility of victims of sexual abuse and physical abuse.

"And therefore in a sense it was overlooked. But the tragedy is that now that this problem has been recognised, no one - the Scottish Parliament, the courts - no one is prepared to do anything to rectify it. So, all these victims remain without compensation."

Judges do have the discretion to overturn this rule, but it is rarely done.

In 1999 the Irish Government launched a commission to investigate child abuse and set up a redress board to compensate victims.

By 2010, it had paid out an average of 63,000 Euros to 14,000 people. The final bill will be more than a billion euros.

Historic abuse

Canada, Australia and Jersey have also set up inquiries and reparation schemes.

BBC Scotland has estimated, using comparative figures from Ireland, that a similar state compensation scheme in Scotland could cost more than £500m.

Lord McConnell said: "I don't think how much it might cost the state or particularly the organisations who were covering up the abuse…is a factor

"When we were making the decision around the apology …the idea there might be compensation at the end of this was an encouragement to us not a block on us doing it. And if it is now a block on anybody making the right decision they should search their conscience and do the right thing."

Asked if he believed justice would have been delivered for abuse victims by now if he were still first minister, Lord McConnell answered: "I have absolutely no doubt about that."

The Scottish government told the BBC that £6m had been spent on improving services for abuse survivors. Last month it announced plans for a National Confidential Forum, where anyone who went through care can tell a panel about their experiences in private.

The spokeswoman said the government was aware of concerns regarding the time-bar and was seeking views from a range of stakeholders in improving the law on time bar and to identify what more can and should be done for survivors of historic abuse.

A spokesman for the Sisters of Nazareth told the BBC they were not aware of any allegations relating to Sister Kevin. He said the Sisters of Nazareth had always tried to provide a compassionate and supportive home for the children they were looking after.

The Investigation: Scotland's Forgotten Children will be broadcast at 10:30 on 3 March on BBC Radio Scotland. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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