Published Monday, 21 May 2012
Chief Constable Matt Baggott. (© Pacemaker)
Last week it emerged the PSNI had retained tissue from 64 victims of unexplained or suspicious deaths in Northern Ireland, without informing relatives.
The Police Ombudsman's Office then revealed that it has held body parts in a further four cases.
On Monday, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott apologised to the families whose loved ones were affected, and a helpline was set up on 028 9027 9100.
Meanwhile at Stormont, Mr Ford told the Assembly that there have been cases where tissue was held and later disposed of without consent.
"The state pathologist has clarified to me that there were, in the past, occasions when human tissue was taken without the families' knowledge and subsequently disposed of without family consent or knowledge," he revealed.
"To many that may seem a shocking statement."
Twenty three of the cases in Northern Ireland, in which victims' tissue was kept as evidence from 1960 to 2005, concerned Troubles-related deaths.
They were uncovered as part of a UK-wide audit of police forces carried out by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Addressing MLAs at Stormont, Mr Ford said the recommendations from the human tissue audit, which revealed that the PSNI kept more body parts than any other UK force, will be fully implemented in the region.
Speaking at a press conference, the Chief Constable said that he was sorry "for the distress that has been caused to the families".
Of course I'm sorry for the distress that has been caused to families.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott
"I'm sorry for the uncertainties that have been brought about over the past few days. I hope we'll be able to bring a degree of assurance and clarity to them."
The conference was also attended by Chair of the Victims Commission, Brendan McAllister.
He said the commission will meet with Justice Minister David Ford in two weeks' time to consider "unanswered questions" raised by victims and survivors, but said: "I am satisfied that the PSNI has taken great care to resolve this situation."
Mr McAllister called for sensitivity towards those who have lost someone through violence or in other tragic circumstances and who may be especially vulnerable to distress, adding: "It is important now for this situation to proceed in an atmosphere of calmness."
The police apologised last week over the matter but insisted their actions had been within the law, saying body parts were retained as part of their investigations.
They are now in the process of passing information on to families.
Mr Ford added that the recommendations from the human tissue audit will be fully implemented in the region and added his apologies to the bereaved.
"I deeply regret the fresh pain that families have had to suffer since this issue became known. I appreciate that this is a very difficult time for those families," he said.
"I am committed to ensuring that the recommendations in today's national audit are implemented fully in Northern Ireland to ensure public confidence.
He added: "Although the retention of human tissue following a post mortem without informing the families was common practice prior to 2006, I share the view expressed by ACC Hamilton that there is a great difference in acting legally and doing what is morally and ethically right."
Commission for Victims and Survivors telephone: 028 9027 9100
Last week, the family of one murder victim whose skull tissue was retained by police for over 19 years announced they are taking legal action against the PSNI.
© UTV News