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Text of President Mary McAleese's speech: Click here

Victims of Church child abuse wept yesterday as Irish President Mary McAleese apologized for their suffering on behalf of the people of the Republic.

For many of them, now senior citizens, it was the first time they shed such tears of joy.

More than 280 victims of institutional abuse traveled from near and far to Aras an Uachtarain yesterday to hear the President, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

McAleese spoke of the painful lives endured by thousands of children who had suffered institutional abuse, as laid out graphically in the Ryan Report.

“For so long your suffering seemed to make strangers of you in your own land.”

Older men and women in the audience spoke of feeling “free” for the first time after they emerged from the Presidential home in Phoenix Park.

One attendee, John Kelly, had lived on the streets of London after he suffered horrific abuse at the Daingean reformatory.

Yesterday he said the meeting with the President had been an historic occasion for many of the 14,000 abuse victims who fled Ireland.

He praised the President for giving them the desire to be Irish again and calling for the perpetrators of abuse to be prosecuted.

“I spent 33 years in England,” he said.

“I slept on benches in Hyde Park. It was safer than those places. People wouldn’t come back. Why would they, for a state that didn’t care about them?

“Today’s the first day the State has acknowledged ‘You’re Irish and have rights’ and it’s 48 or 50 years too late. But this President has done that and that has given us hope and inspiration. And now we’re proud to be Irish.”

He said he had seen dozens of old and frail faces light up as the President spoke to them.

As children, they had been tried for offences they did not commit before being thrown into institutions, he said.

“Half of them emigrated and we brought many of these people back here today.

“Before they die, they have heard the President saying ‘We were wrong.'"