The past is always present

An organisation is bringing into the open the hidden abuse of children in care and religious orders. Terry Philpot spoke to those at the forefront of the work in Scotland, themselves survivors of mistreatment, for whom a politician’s apology is far from adequate

A quiet Catholic cemetery stands just outside the pretty country town of St Mary’s, Lanarkshire. It is much like many other cemeteries except that there are four sections: for priests, nuns,  parishioners and children of the orphanage that once stood nearby. The grass is cut, trees cast their shadows across the stones, the walls are maintained but in the children’s section there are no gravestones. Nothing marks their final resting places except a memorial dedicated by Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell.

Until the memorial was put up, the children’s burial place was unkempt, overgrown by grass and weeds while the three other sections were well tended. The wall which ran along that edge was crumbling.

The unnamed children buried there were all residents of Smyllum orphanage, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. Jim Kane, who had been in the orphanage, discovered the burial places and, with his friend Frank Docherty, who was also in the orphanage, fought to have the site maintained, the wall repaired and the memorial erected. No one is sure how many children are buried there.

This small but hard fought-for achievement of the memorial is one of the three most tangible achievements made by the organisation In Care Abuse Survivors (Incas) since it came into being three years ago. The second is the public apology, on behalf of the Scottish people, made by first minister Jack McConnell in parliament in December 2004. The third is the £2m that the Scottish executive has set aside to help those who were abused.

Docherty decided that something had to be done after he attended the trial in 2000 of Sister Alphonso, who was found guilty of four counts of child cruelty; three others were “not proven” and 17 charges were not proceeded with.

Docherty says: “I came out of that court annoyed; more than that, it was a farce, a whitewash. Everyone was talking about it but no one was doing anything about it.”

He decided to set up an organisation for those who had been abused, and after two changes of name it was transformed in 2002 into Incas. Most of its 463 members live in the UK and were in residential or foster care, or were adopted at least 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. Its helpline receives 20 calls a day, some from people who have been abused, some from the children of parents who were abused but who have died, and some from children wanting to know how to help parents who feel unable to call. Most Incas members were in the care of religious orders, although the organisation emphasises that it is concerned with abuse wherever it happened. Indeed, of the 10 criminal cases that have so far reached the courts, six were concerned with homes run by the charity Quarrier’s. Barnardo’s has also featured.

One man, now 48, was placed as a child by Barnardo’s with a foster carer who, two years ago, was convicted of making him available, with another child, for sexual abuse at parties. He also struck him and made him stand on an outside windowsill. The man did not find out his real name until 1997 and has no idea of the whereabouts of one of his sisters.

Cameron Fyfe, head of litigation at solicitors Ross Harper, is handling 500 civil cases (most of which do not concern sexual abuse) against the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and the Daughters of Charity. He also has 300 other cases that include Quarrier’s, Barnardo’s, the Catholic de la Salle Order and local authorities, most of which include sexual abuse. One hundred and fifty of his cases occurred before 1964, so they are barred by the limitation rule affecting civil cases. This is something on which the Scottish parliament is now deliberating.

Docherty and Helen Holland, the deputy chair of Incas who was in another home run by a religious order – Nazareth House, Kilmarnock – decided to speak about what they had suffered quite independently (they did not then know each other) when  a Sunday newspaper published an article about a woman who claimed to have been abused when in the care of nuns.

Docherty read the piece: “Somebody believed us,” he says. He had only ever “skimmed over” with his wife what he had endured. He phoned a helpline and broke down sobbing. “It all came out, things I’d put away for years: it was such a relief.” The article provoked Holland, then a senior manager in a private company, to come forward to tell her story to a newspaper and go to the police.

She says: “I am one of six children and five of us went into the same home. We were separated – we slept in different dormitories, we sat at different tables. I had never discussed this with them, though I suspected that they, too, had been abused.

When I decided to speak about this, I went to see my brother and we sat in his car. I said that I had something to tell him and explained what happened to me. He said: “If you have the strength to do it, do it. I asked him if it had happened to him. He got out of the car and started crying. We’ve never spoken about it since.”

She was physically assaulted on her second day in the home after she climbed into her sister’s bed when she woke in the night. She was left with bleeding welts on her body from a bamboo cane. She was five and a half. When she was eight, a nun sexually assaulted her with a brush handle. When she confessed this to a priest, he, with the nun’s help, raped her. She learned not to talk about it. “Helen has become unnaturally shy,” said her social work report. The  priest repeatedly raped her as did other priests. She does not know who they were: she was tied to a stool and masked. At 11 it  stopped when, “beaten black and blue” by the nun, she miscarried.

The one priest she can identify is dead. The nun is now 83 and lives in Ireland – it was decided not to proceed with a prosecution because of her frailty and age.

Holland says: “My whole reason for going to the police was that I wanted to face that nun so that she could see that she no longer had control over me. I wanted to ask her questions: why me? What had I done?  I wanted her to tell me that what she had done was wrong and that she was sorry.”

Docherty, who was an alcoholic for 40 years, spent 19 months in care before he ran away aged 12. He had hidden every night before being held down, stripped and “hit everywhere – face, hands, buttocks, legs”.

The Scottish bishops have yet to issue an apology that satisfies Incas. The church maintains that the then Bishop (now Cardinal) O’Brien unreservedly apologised in 2001 and repeated it on television in 2003. However, it was to one named person “and to others” in response to the publication of a book.

The first minister’s apology accepted no responsibility for the scores of allegations of abuse concerning local authority homes, foster and adoptive care and placements made by local councils in church and voluntary homes. Neither did it concede an inquiry and Incas now looks forward with interest to the findings of the investigation of the independent expert.

For some this may seem to be going too much back to the past, when what counts is what can be done now. But for others, like Frank Docherty and Helen Holland, the past is not another country; it is somewhere they live each day.

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