Decades of physical, sexual and emotional suffering were inflicted upon the most vulnerable by the Church, the state and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, it was alleged yesterday.
More than 300 victims are set to testify to the investigation, which is expected to last 18 months.
Christine Smith QC, the inquiry’s senior counsel, told Sir Anthony Hart, a retired Crown court judge presiding over the hearings, that they would give voice to those who felt let down by the system between 1922, the foundation of the Northern Ireland state, and 1995.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” she said.
The hearing got under way in Banbridge, Co Down, yesterday where scores of victims and their families packed the public gallery to hear Ms Smith outline harrowing details of abuse which carried on largely unchecked for more than seven decades.
It involved homes in Belfast, Londonderry and Kircubbin in Co Down, as well as the notorious Kincora boys’ home in east Belfast, where details of alleged abuse of young children first emerged decades ago.
The aim of the investigation is to establish if there were “systemic failings by institutions or the state in their duties towards those children in their care”.
It was created in response to a campaign for justice by victims, which became increasingly urgent in 2009 following the findings of a similar investigation in the Republic of Ireland which uncovered evidence of endemic abuse.
Most complaints relate to Catholic homes for children looked after between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 1970s. They were commonly orphans, others came from families deemed unfit to care for them. Ms Smith said many victims had waited years for the start of the inquiry, for the opportunity to give their accounts of what happened.
“The core of its work is a very human story, a story of how society treated the must vulnerable of its citizens, its children. Such stories are sadly not unique to Northern Ireland,” she added.
For many it will be the first time they state in public what happened to them.
About 97,000 pages of evidence have been submitted.
The allegations included sexual attacks by staff, adults or older children, physical assaults by staff with implements, bullying by older children, denigration of their families or separation from brothers or sisters, placing them in cupboards or other threatening behaviour, public humiliation of children who wet their beds, excessive labour, removal of gifts, denial of food, affection or education, and a lack of staffing or oversight, medical attention or preparation for leaving institutional care.