Twice as many victims as feared in sex-abuse scandal at children's home

THE number of victims in one of Scotland's worst cases of institutional sexual abuse is more than double than previously thought, The Scotsman can reveal.

It was initially thought that about 20 young people were abused at a local authority-run residential home in Dumfriesshire during the 1970s and 1980s. But following the issue of a public apology by Dumfries and Galloway Council last autumn, dozens more people have come forward, and the number of victims now stands at 47.

Having been independently evaluated, every survivor has now been deemed entitled to an ex gratia payment of 20,000.

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It means that the local authority will now pay close to 1 million to those who suffered during their time in care at the Merkland Children's home in Moffat.

The council does not regard the payments as compensation, rather recognition of the abuse which took place while the children were in care.

Peter Harley, the officer in charge at the home between 1977 and 1982, was jailed for 15 years at the High Court in Glasgow in 1996 after he pled guilty to 45 charges of indecency and assault against boys aged between six and 16. He was released after serving ten years.

While Dumfries and Galloway Council was not legally required to make any payment to the victims, it took the decision to approve ex gratia payments last October, citing a "moral imperative to do the right thing".

Having called a freephone number set up by the council, a further 28 people who suffered under Harley have now told their story for the first time.

In all, about 200 children spent time at Merkland under Harley's "care", meaning that he abused nearly one in four young people who stayed there.

Harley's trial heard that vulnerable youngsters looking for attention would sit on his knee in the television room, only to be molested. Some of the boys were preyed upon when they awoke during the night from nightmares, or because they needed to go to the toilet.

The court also heard that one boy who was taken away from his parents was sexually abused on his first night at Merkland. Lord Weir, the trial judge, described it as one of the worst cases of sexual abuse he had ever encountered.

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One of Harley's victims committed suicide, while another drank himself to death. The offences committed during Harley's five-year tenure at the home only came to light when a boy told his girlfriend of his experiences, sparking a police investigation.

One of his victims, now 43, recalled the physical and sexual abuse he endured during his time at Merkland 28 years ago. "Harley used to wake us at three or four in the morning, bundle five or six of us into his car and drive us into the countryside," he said.

"He then made us walk up to six miles back to the home. The last one back was battered, and it was usually me. He used a belt, crutches, or walking stick on us. I can still feel the pain to this day."

He added: "Harley also sexually abused me and the others when we were in the showers."

Five victims sought to sue the council, but their cases were dismissed at the Court of Session in 2005 on the grounds of a time-bar that prevents many alleged victims of historic child abuse from seeking justice in the courts.

Under Scots law, personal injuries claims can only be lodged within three years of the incident. When the victims are children, claims must be made within three years of their 16th birthday.

Judges have discretionary powers to lift the time-bar, unless the alleged abuse took place before 1964.

Officials at Dumfries and Galloway Council itself have expressed "deep disappointment" over the legal representation afforded the Merkland victims to date, and have met representatives from the Law Society of Scotland to discuss the issues thrown up by the case.

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The 940,000 in ex gratia payments will be met from Dumfries and Galloway Council's social work committee budget.


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