Public hearings into allegations of child abuse in Northern Ireland’s churches and state - run homes are set to begin, in an inquiry considered to be the biggest public probe into abuse having taken place in the UK.The inquiry is to begin later on Monday at the Banbridge Courthouse in the northeastern County Down. More than 300 witnesses are to testify to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) on the physical, sexual and emotional abuse as well as neglect they suffered at state and church institutions over a time period of 73 years. A total of 435 individuals have applied to speak to the inquiry, which is examining claims against 13 institutions run by state authorities, voluntary organizations and the Catholic Church. Hearings are to be held over a period of 18 months and then the inquiry will determine whether there were "systemic failings by institutions or the State "in the duties towards those children in their care between years of 1922-1995." The Catholic Church has been hit by numerous scandals in the past few years, involving allegations of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests to protect its own reputation. Pope Francis agreed last month to form a panel of experts to advise the Holy See on protecting children from pedophile priests and helping abuse victims. His decision came after the Vatican was criticized over its responses to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Vatican answered several of the UN committee’s questions by saying it is up to bishops and dioceses to implement programs to protect children from abusive priests, not the Holy See.