By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) - Children in Northern Ireland suffered decades of cruel sexual, physical and emotional abuse in institutions run by the state, charities and the Catholic and Protestant churches, an official report said on Friday.
Instances of sexual abuse by priests and lay people were detailed in a 2,300 page, 12-volume report that identified widespread systemic failings and extended responsibility to the Northern Irish government and church authorities.
"Some institutions providing residential child care were responsible for a range of institutional practices which constituted systemic abuse," Sir Anthony Hart, a retired High Court judge who chaired the four-year inquiry, told a news conference.
"There were individuals who provided excellent care and others who were cruel and abusive, physically and emotionally towards the children for whom they were responsible. This abuse has affected many people for the rest of their lives."
Victims at the news conference applauded Hart as he concluded his more than two-hour findings.
"We have waited a lifetime. Today were are vindicated, our time has come," Margaret McGuckin, a campaigner for fellow abuse victims, told reporters.
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI) heard evidence from hundreds of people who spent their childhood in homes from 1922 to 1995, the latter three decades against the backdrop of conflict during Northern Ireland's "Troubles".
Hart said the poverty, social conditions and government policies of the period had a significant impact in creating the setting in which the abuse occurred.
Of the 22 institutions investigated, systemic failings to "a greater or less degree" were found in 20. Rather than protecting children, institutions sought to protect their reputations and individuals, the inquiry said.
Those failures also included the running of the so-called child migrant scheme, administered by the Northern Irish government, where up to 144 children as young as four were sent to residential homes 15,000 kilometers away in Australia.
It was wrong to send children so young, Hart said, and to deny parents truthful information when they inquired over their whereabouts or when children sought to trace their parents.
Hart said the institutions and the Northern Irish government should formally apologize to the victims, who he said should be entitled to compensation of up to 100,000 pounds each.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, whose party has shared power in Northern Ireland since 2007, welcomed the publication and said he hoped victims had a sense of vindication.
The inquiry follows harrowing reports in recent years in the Irish Republic, where priests were found to have beaten and raped children over decades in Catholic-run institutions, shattering the authority of the church in Ireland.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)