Patients will be at the centre of proceedings in an inquiry into allegations of abuse at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, the inquiry chairman has stated.
Tom Kark QC, chairman of the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Inquiry, said it is clear already that “bad practices were allowed to persist at the hospital to the terrible detriment of a number of patients”.
The inquiry is examining allegations of abuse of patients at the facility in Co Antrim.
Muckamore Abbey, a hospital for adults with severe learning disabilities and mental health needs, has been at the centre of the UK’s largest ever police investigation into the alleged abuse of vulnerable adults.
A number of people are to be prosecuted in the probe.
Mr Kark, who previously played a key role in the 2010 inquiry into avoidable deaths at Stafford Hospital, said the inquiry has agreed a memorandum of understanding with police and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to proceed without impacting the criminal investigation.
He described the inquiry as being of great importance to a large number of people.
He also said it is important to the wider mental health and learning disability services, which he said, need to learn from its mistakes.
He said what happened at Muckamore Abbey Hospital “has been referred to as a scandal”, adding: “Without predetermining any issue, it is quite obvious that bad practices were allowed to persist at the hospital to the terrible detriment of a number of patients”.
“Those patients themselves were all without exception highly vulnerable in different ways and so it is understandable that there is considerable public anger at some of what has already been revealed,” he said.
“Relatives and carers who entrusted their loved ones to the hospital to be cared for with compassion have discovered that in many cases, that is not what was happening, and because so many of the patients were either non verbal or had difficulty communicating, they couldn’t express what was happening or they were not regarded as credible.
“Many of the parents, relatives and carers who trusted the hospital have been let down, and they are understandably furious, and some feel guilty. I have met through the engagement sessions a number of families and individuals who have expressed their great upset and anger at what they have now discovered was happening when they left their loved relatives at Muckamore.”
Mr Kark said the inquiry will scrutinise what was happening at the hospital over many decades.
“I regard the patients and their relatives and carers, who have been abused or received poor care, as being at the front and centre of this inquiry,” he said.
Senior counsel to the inquiry, Sean Doran QC began his opening statement describing a “very significant week” for those who campaigned for the inquiry.
In a lengthy opening statement which is due to conclude on Tuesday, Mr Doran said the inquiry will examine the roles and responsibilities of the different authorities responsibility for oversight of the hospital, as well as for regulating and monitoring.
“Fundamentally however, the inquiry will be concerned with people, more specifically, the inquiry will be concerned with very vulnerable people and the care of the vulnerable in a hospital setting,” he said.
“It will be concerned also with those people who have responsibility for such care, from frontline staff to the upper tiers of the health service.
“The subject of abuse is at the core of this inquiry. The inquiry will inevitably hear some harrowing evidence of abuse in the course of its work.
“It is also important however to acknowledge that many involved in the care of the vulnerable carry out their work with diligence and compassion and in accordance with the highest professional standards.”
Opening statements from core participants are expected to be heard on Wednesday and Thursday.
Core participants include those involved with the Society of Parents and Friends of Muckamore Abbey and Action For Muckamore, as well as the department of health, Belfast Health Trust, RQIA and police.
The inquiry is set to make recommendations to government when it concludes.
Mr Kark said he expects the inquiry “will inevitably take some time”, but said if it comes across issues that require urgent and immediate rectification, a short interim report can be written with recommendations.
Dr Elaine Maxwell and Professor Glynis Murphy are also on the panel along with Mr Kark.
Relatives of patients were among those who attended the inquiry on Monday.
Glynn Brown, whose son Aaron had been a patient at the hospital, was among those who attended.
Mr Brown, who previously raised the alarm about the facility, said he will be watching to see if the “depth and scale” of what happened will be uncovered, and what will be done about it.
Speaking ahead of the first day of public hearings, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said he trusts the inquiry will provide the answers needed.
“As I stated in September 2020 when I announced my intention to establish an inquiry, patients and families need more than apologies,” he said.
“They deserve the truth on what has happened and how it was allowed to happen. I trust that this public inquiry will provide the answers that are required.”