The Hughes Report: Chaired by Judge William H. Hughes

Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels (1986) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels (Chairman: His Honour Judge William H Hughes) Belfast: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 0 337 07356 2His Honour, Judge Hughes, was appointed in 1984 to investigate a series of cases of homosexual abuse in Northern Irish children’s homes following the publication of allegations surrounding the Kincora Boys Home in the Irish press in 1980. The long time between the allegations surfacing and the Committee beginning its work arose from the police investigation into the allegations and the Report of Sir George Terry, then Chief Constable of Sussex.

The Committee’s terms of reference related only to homosexual offences, though it covered cases in nine homes between 1960 and 1984, and this, together with the allegations of a vice-ring, may have led people elsewhere in the UK to dismiss the report as irrelevant to their own situations, as homosexual relationships between consenting adults had been decriminalised in the rest of the UK. In fact, its findings have great relevance to addressing any form of abuse against children whether in or out of residential care.

Key points

  •  Residential provision for children in Northern Ireland had declined significantly in the 1970s (unlike in England and Wales) and requirements for visiting had been relaxed; recruitment was difficult and few staff held qualifications.
  •  There was no formal complaints procedure until 1975.
  • Visits from Committee members, which were rarely carried out to the requirements anyway, were unlikely to have detected abuse.
  •  Inspections by the Social Work Advisory Group were also unlikely to have detected abuse because they were overburdened with other issues.
  •  Children either had not disclosed abuse because they did not believe they would be believed or because they had been able to handle the situations themselves or had taken steps which had not been picked up/interpreted correctly by the responsible authorities.
  •  Only one manager and no field worker ever complied fully with the visiting requirements.
  •  Allegations of criminal activity among staff at Kincora Boys Home began circulating in 1974 but were never collated or acted upon.
  •  Vetting students would not have prevented the abuse in Bawnmore Boys Home.
  •  Vetting of casual visitors would not have prevented instances of abuse elsewhere as none of the offenders had previous convictions.
  •  Staff in several homes acted promptly and appropriately when abuse was disclosed but management, particularly in De la Salle Boys Home, had often failed to carry out their responsibilities.
  •  Prevention is very difficult and detection difficult in the absence of a complaint or obvious distress.
  •  No new procedure would have prevented the abuse.
  •  The only answers lie in improving the quality of staff, the quality of the social work that is done with children, including seeing children alone, and the opportunities for children to be active participants in their care, to make complaints and to receive sex education to make them aware of the issues and how to handle them.
  • Recording is an essential part of care and there need to be agreed procedures to deal with such situations which then need to be followed.


In Chapter 1 Introduction, the authors recall how an article by Peter McKenna in the Irish Independent Sex racket at children’s home on 24 January 1980 alleged a cover up. An RUC investigation led to all three members of staff at Kincora Boys Hostel in East Belfast being convicted in December 1981. Following further allegations about offences at Williamson House and Nazareth Lodge, Belfast and Bawnmore Boys Home, Newtownabbey, four other persons were convicted in May and December 1981.

On 15 January 1982 James Prior, Secretary of State, announced an inquiry under Stephen McGonagle but he stood down on 12 February 1982 on learning that the police investigation was ongoing. On 18 February 1982 Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable, asked HM Inspector of Constabulary to appoint an inquiry into the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s handling of prior complaints. Sir George Terry, Chief Constable of Sussex, undertook this inquiry and on 29 October 1983 the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that he had decided there was no evidence to warrant criminal proceedings. The conclusions of Sir George Terry’s report, that there was no evidence for homosexual vice rings or the involvement of police officers, civil servants, military personnel, JPs or lawyers, were published on 29 October 1983.

Meanwhile the DHSS had sent a team of three under Miss A M Sheridan to meet the DHSS(NI) on 24-26 February 1982 and their report had been presented in June 1982. There had been two debates in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 22 March and

9 September 1983.

On 18 January 1984 James Prior announced his intention to establish an inquiry under His Honour W H Hughes to look at all offences leading to convictions and all disciplinary action relating to homosexual conduct going back to 1960 in nine children’s homes. On 21 March 1984 W J Patterson and H Whalley were appointed to assist him.

The inquiry team comment that they had taken administration in a broad sense to cover “those responsible for the provision of residential care”, that they had adopted the test of reasonableness in considering whether the abuse could have been prevented and that, while they could consider present procedures and practices in establishments, there was a question of how long it had been going on.

Procedurally there had been some problems arising from the adversarial element involving those seeking compensation; they had held oral hearings in private on ten of the sixty days to protect the privacy of former residents but otherwise they had sat in public. Their starting point had been the 565 statements, including 185 from former residents, from the RUC and Terry investigations; a few witnesses had made additional statements. There had been a minimal response to the public request for further information perhaps because, while respondents were offered immunity from prosecution, they had to give evidence under oath and be cross-examined. Written submissions had been requested from all involved. They had heard from 66 witnesses in total.

They had also looked at the Black Report (Children and Young Persons Review Group [Northern Ireland], 1979), the Barclay Report (National Institute for Social Work, 1982) and the Second Report of the House of Commons Social Services Committee (1984).

In Chapter 2 Residential child care system 1960-1980, they summarise the legislation applicable to children in care from 1960 to 1980 and how, from 1968, welfare officers had been required to visit children at least monthly and complete review forms every three months. Over the 1960s the numbers in care went up as did those in residential care but the use of voluntary homes declined sharply, these changes being even more dramatic in Belfast. From 1 October 1973 children’s services became the responsibility of Health and Social Services Boards but the new statutory instruments, while largely re-enacting the 1950s orders, had reduced visiting from monthly to quarterly. The Eastern Board, covering Belfast, had six District Social Services Officers but in Autumn 1984 Eastern Board reorganised into fourteen units of management. Also on 1 August 1977 Eastern Board changed from three monthly to six monthly reviews.During the 1970s the proportion of children in children’s homes dropped; whereas the total population in residential care in 1960 had been over 13,000, by 1983 it was less than 700. Recruitment was generally difficult, there were few professionally qualified staff in residential child care in 1960 and by 1984, when 93% of fieldworkers were qualified, only 32% of residential staff in statutory homes were, with perhaps 20% in the voluntary sector.

There was no formally effective complaints procedure until 1975. Meanwhile, everyone was dealing with the strain of the troubles.

In Chapter 3 Kincora Boys’ Hostel 1960-1973, they recount that it was opened in January 1958 for 10-12 boys aged 15-18 before summarising the convictions of the three staff and the appointment procedures at the time. They conclude that there was no evidence that the authorities could have detected homosexual tendencies at the time of appointment. However, there was no formal system of staff appraisal and only between 1963 and 1965 were visits fully carried out; thereafter there was a decline though it was difficult to determine how far. They note that visits probably took place in the presence of staff, inhibiting disclosure, but it was unlikely that boys would disclose to Committee members anyway.

There had been two formal inspections by the Northern Ireland Ministry in 1965 and 1972 as well as twelve informal visits but there was little chance of them discovering abuse because of the amount that had to be covered; indeed, they were too short to be able to satisfy the purpose of examining “the conditions and treatment of the children”. They comment that the 1968 policy of monthly visits with three-monthly reviews, to parallel fostering practice, should have been introduced earlier because children in residential care should receive no less attention than those in foster care and any lack of contact removed a possible line of communication. They observe that the lack of complaints procedures reflected the situation UK-wide.

They then examine the evidence from former residents noting that R3 did not believe the authorities would believe him because the abuser was respected; if he got a bad report he might go to Borstal. R2 would not have complained because abuse had become central to his life while B3 accepted the homosexual relationship but R4 was too embarrassed to mention it.

R7 had successfully resisted earlier advances but was afraid that any complaint would get back to the abuser and that he would not be believed by the police. In fact R7 knew that R6 had put in two complaints (but R6 was barely literate) and R7 had sought to prevent his younger brother going to Kincora.In September 1966 allegations by R5 and R6 against Mr Mains reached the Town Clerk but no further action was taken; at the time Mr Mains was of good character and the recommendation that further information be sought was probably not followed up.

They note that there had been incidents which might have raised concerns and a file had been opened in 1971 which, on the retirement of the author in 1973, was passed to the new Assistant Director (Family and Child Care Services). For this period, therefore, while there was evidence of failings, there was no evidence of a cover-up.

In Chapter 4 Kincora Boys Hostel 1973-1980, they note that from 1 October 1973 Kincora came under the Eastern Health and Social Services Board with supervision as per the 1975 Directive but no formal appraisal system. While several people were involved in the monthly inspections, only one person completed them fully and lots of reports were made later and reported together. Kincora itself complied with its obligations but Committee visits were only satisfactory between 1974 and 1977 though they would probably not have made a difference anyway.

There was only one Social Work Advisory Group inspection, in 1979, but it never met its own target of annual inspections anyway. No field worker ever fully complied with the requirements for visits and monthly reviews, and there was only one recorded complaint against Mr McGrath, while another boy said he had complained to Mr Mains about Mr McGrath. They note that eight boys did not complain about being subject to any level of homosexual activity and conclude that there was a problem of trust and that inspections were unlikely to disclose or prevent abuse.

They note discrepancies between R14’s allegations against Mr McGrath in 1980 and the accounts given by others but are not inclined to disbelieve the general tenor of the allegations. They also note that R15’s allegations were first discounted by his own family and then by the social services department because the family was in a running battle with the department. Though he was given a different placement, the allegations were never passed on.

From 1974 allegations that the staff were known homosexuals involved in criminal activity began to emerge through several incidents involving boys, staff, the police and social workers but these were never linked and no one seems to have been prepared to ‘grasp the nettle’. They conclude that there was no cover-up but a lack of communication and coordination.

In Chapter 5 Valetta Park Hostel, Newtownards, they cover the case of R23 who was buggered by an uncle when he was taken out of the hostel and also subsequently placed with this uncle. They conclude that the supervision and visiting arrangements were reasonable and the case had no connection with Kincora and they note that no staff at the hostel had been convicted.

In Chapter 6 Bawnmore Boys’ Home, they first examine the circumstances of two student placements in 1967/68; they note that the records are missing, there was no pre-placement vetting and no formal supervision other than by the Officer in Charge. While there was no formal vetting of occasional visitors to the home, there was also no evidence that vetting would have detected the abuse.

They also consider alleged complaints by two boys against a member of staff, noting that one had been involved in serious sexual activities at a previous placement and had later been placed at Kincora while the evidence of the second was confused. They conclude that the incident appears to have involved extreme force (the member of staff had subsequently resigned in 1969 after the Officer in Charge had accused him of bullying) and there was no evidence of homosexual abuse.

In Chapter 7 Williamson House, they note that Eric Witchell, the former Officer in Charge, had been convicted and also that allegations against a former housefather of offences during a holiday in Scotland had resulted in him being dismissed by the Eastern Board. They note that, on Mr Witchell’s appointment in 1975, one referee had doubted his suitability for the post and concerns about him had led to a formal warning in 1977; however, there had never been any evidence of homosexual conduct. R24 said he had not complained because he was frightened of Mr Witchell. R25 did not tell his social worker because she was a female in her early twenties. They note that there was prompt action by the staff following the allegations and Mr Witchell resigned.

In Chapter 8 Palmerston Reception and Assessment Centre, they consider the case of Mr Hendry, who had worked at Bawnmore before moving to Palmerston in 1975. In 1981 a senior social worker discovered that he had been the subject of allegations of improper behaviour at a youth club in Belfast before he was employed at Bawnmore and informed the police; he was suspended and later convicted.

In Chapter 9 Nazareth Lodge Children’s Home, they note that no one at the home had been convicted but a James McGuigan, who took children home on outings and did occasional voluntary work, had been convicted of offences against two children while taking them out on trips. They note that the procedures for vetting casual visitors had been carried out. He had no previous convictions and was married. But they consider that the adoption assessment relating to one child should have raised concerns while acknowledging that the records reveal no evidence to suggest that the offences could have been discovered.

In Chapter 10 De la Salle Boys’ Home, Rubane House, Kircubbin, they note that the former Officer in Charge had been charged but the proceedings discontinued because he was receiving treatment for a serious illness. One member of staff had been convicted of physical assaults and James McGuigan, a housefather from September 1977, had been convicted of offences at Nazareth Lodge. They criticise the Board of Governors and the Social Work Advisory Group for failing to carry our their responsibilities and the lack of records of injuries to children. They conclude that, while there was a conflict of evidence in the case of C12, the assault on C8 had been reported within the organisation but the social worker had not been informed and there were no records in the home. Overall the Board of Governors could have acted more firmly.

In Chapter 11 Barnardo’s Sharronmore Project, they consider the conviction of David Jarvis, not a member of staff; when the resident told his uncle, he told the staff who acted promptly. The Committee comment that Barnardo’s files were well organised and thorough, “This high standard of record keeping was rare in our experience” (p. 277). However, while their internal procedures were good, their reporting of the incident had been poor.

In Chapter 12 Manor House Home, they describe how David Jarvis had committed an offence against a resident while on bail for the offence described above. A staff member had been suspicious about him and noted his registration number. They comment that, while the staff had acted promptly in this and another incident, the Management Committee visits had not been carried out as required and the Social Work Advisory Group inspections had been no more than adequate.

In Chapter 13 Present procedures and recommendations, they conclude that:

  • prevention is very difficult;
  •  detection is difficult in the absence of a complaint or obvious distress;
  •  there is reluctance among children to complain, especially because of embarrassment, guilt or fear of victimisation;
  •  there is a need for defined procedures;
  •  existing procedures are of limited value in preventing or detecting abuse, though they may contribute to the welfare of children;
  •  no one complied with all the statutory obligations;
  •  information collected by central government was insufficient to enable them to discharge their overall responsibilities.
  • hey argue that there is a need for a balance, stating that “Tying down scarce professional resources with time-consuming procedures and excessive paperwork would defeat [the] object [of protecting and promoting the welfare of residents]” (p. 288) and they conclude that new procedures ‘would not have identified any of the nine persons who obtained employment in the homes … and were subsequently convicted or disciplined’ (p. 291). This does not mean that convictions should not be disclosed but the procedures cannot cover all possible applicants, for example, from other countries.
  • They also argue that “Pre-employment vetting procedures cannot guarantee the recruitment of staff who will not misbehave. They are merely one of several necessary checks and safeguards …” and that arguments about excluding homosexuals because of the actions of a minority could be applied to heterosexuals.
  • Noting that monitoring is of limited value in preventing and detecting abuse and that there is a problem of non-compliance in the supervision of residents, they recommend among other things:
  •  a sexual balance of staff; though not an issue, equal recruitment would give children choice of whom to talk to;
  •  parity of pay between field and residential staff ;
  •  increasing the number of trained staff and reviewing teaching about sex on courses;
  •  formal appraisal systems, staff meetings and job descriptions;
  •  treatment plans developed in consultation with field and residential workers and including the views of child and family;
  •  “accurate, clear and relevant” recording (p. 313);
  •  disclosure of information to clients as a principle but not as a right;
  •  children to be in reviews as a rule and only excluded where the child’s interests dictate;
  •  improved care planning;
  •  improved self-esteem, though it is not clear that this would encourage children to disclose;
  •  social workers seeing residents alone;
  •  effective complaints procedures including booklets explaining the procedure and contact cards;
  •  improved sex education;
  •  the vetting of voluntary helpers.

They point out that the vast majority of residential staff were conscientious and residents were likely to confide in residential staff but query whether a key worker system would improve things. They also wonder whether independent visitors, as recommended in the Black Report (Children and Young Persons Review Group [Northern Ireland], 1979) might complicate the key worker role.

In Chapter 14 Final remarks, they point out that

  •  there is a need to record everything both to be able to prove and to disprove things;
  •  no allegations should be disregarded;
  •  all the inquiries between 1960 and 1980 had been ad hoc “without structure or form” (p. 341); and
  •  it is important for agreed procedures to be followed because such events “can no longer be regarded as exceptional” (p. 344).

The report ends with a Summary of Recommendations and Appendices.


This is an outstanding and ground-breaking report; well written and well argued, it pulls no punches, while giving praise where praise is due and treating all those involved with respect. It is the first official report in which the authentic voices of young people contribute to the formulation of recommendations regarding their care.

The authors use the scope given by defining ‘administration’ as “those responsible for the provision of residential care” to look at all aspects of residential child care at the time and come up with conclusions which reflect a holistic view of residential care absent from almost every other official report.

Over a quarter of a century on, its conclusions have largely been vindicated. Sex offenders overwhelmingly commit all their offences within a single episode before which they have no convictions and after which they commit no further offences. So vetting procedures, while useful in eliminating the tiny minority of persistent offenders, are unable to prevent most offences. The only way to prevent such offences is to create an atmosphere of trust between children and carers such that children are confident that they will be believed and any action taken will be proportionate and will not leave them stigmatised or damaged by the experience (Shaw, 2011).

Such an atmosphere depends on listening to and respecting children’s views in all aspects of their lives, not just those in which professionals are interested or for which they are prepared to give time. In other words, what happened was not just a matter of failing to carry out the most basic responsibilities that many of those responsible failed to do – the sorts of failures which had been highlighted in earlier reports on child abuse (Home Office, 1945; Committee of Inquiry into the Care and in Relation to Maria Colwell, 1974) ; it was a failure to create the caring environments in which children can thrive, grow in self-esteem and trust those around them to listen to what they say.

The authors of the report acknowledge that they were not always able to create that atmosphere for all those who gave evidence but they made the effort at a time when such efforts were few and far between.


Children and Young Persons Review Group [Northern Ireland] (1979) Legislation and services for children and young people in Northern Ireland: Report of the Children and Young Persons Review Group (Chair: Sir Harold Black) Belfast: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell (1974) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the care and supervision provided by local authorities and other agencies in relation to Maria Colwell and the co-ordination between them (Chairman: T. G. Field-Fisher) London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Home Office (1945) Report by Sir William Monckton KCMG KCVO MC KC on the circumstances which led to the boarding out of Dennis and Terence O’Neill at Bank Farm, Minsterly and the steps taken to supervise their welfare, etc. Cmd 6636 London: Home Office See also Children Webmag February 2011.

Shaw, R (2011, May) Child sexual abuse: the experiences of victims and abusers Children Webmag.

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