Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Care children 'forced to eat vomit'

Christine Smith QC outlined details of the alleged abuse, which included physical assaults using sticks, straps and kettle flexes
Christine Smith QC outlined details of the alleged abuse, which included physical assaults using sticks, straps and kettle flexes

Some children at residential homes run by Catholic nuns in Northern Ireland were made to eat their own vomit, a lawyer said.

Those who wet their beds were forced to put soiled sheets on their heads by members of a harsh regime which was devoid of love, the UK's largest ever public inquiry into child abuse at residential homes was told.

Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Londonderry were known by their numbers rather than names and many allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, counsel to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Christine Smith QC said.

Kathleen Forrest, a ministry of home affairs inspector, said in a 1953 report: "I find these homes utterly depressing and it appals me to think that these hundreds of children are being reared in bleak lovelessness."

The treatment of children in church-run residential homes is a key concern of the investigation being held in Banbridge, Co Down. It is chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart and is considering cases between 1922, the foundation of Northern Ireland, and 1995.

The Nazareth House Children's Home and St Joseph's Home, Termonbacca, were run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Londonderry. Those allegedly abused there will give evidence later this week. The religious order has already issued a public apology.

Ms Forrest inspected the Derry homes and two more run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast.

"The children in these homes have nothing like a normal upbringing. They must feel unloved as it is just not possible for the number of staff to show affection to such a large number of children," she said.

"They can know nothing or little of the world outside and must be completely unprepared for it, either in character or knowledge."

She added: "This is not meant entirely as a criticism of staff, but their task is impossible."

Ms Smith outlined details of the alleged abuse, which included physical assaults using sticks, straps and kettle flexes.

Others involved:

:: Bathing in Jeyes fluid disinfectant, today more associated with outdoor cleaning jobs like clearing drains.

:: Bullying by their peers.

:: Separation of brothers and sisters, not even telling them if they were in the same home.

:: Locking in cupboards or threatening to send them to a hospital for those with learning disabilities at Muckamore Abbey in Antrim.

:: Humiliating children for bed wetting, forcing them to stand with the sheets on their heads and beating them as punishment.

:: Forced farm labouring or working in the laundry instead of going to school.

:: Removal of Christmas presents and other personal items.

:: Calling children by numbers rather than names.

:: Leaving youngsters hungry through inadequate food or alternately force feeding.

:: Some people who contacted the inquiry claimed when they were ill they were forced to eat their own vomit.

:: Inadequate staffing and supervision and lack of medical attention.

:: Lack of contact with social workers - until the 1960s children were often sent to homes on the recommendation of doctors or clerics and the state was not involved in providing social care.

Ms Smith said allegations included sexual abuse by older children, visiting priests, employees and in one instance a nun.

A senior member of the order made a submission to the inquiry acknowledging that an individual sister or common staff member, having worked long hours with children from troubled backgrounds, may have lost her temper and acted inappropriately. She accepted there was scope for bullying because they could not keep eyes on all the children.

"The sisters always tried to provide the best care with the staff and resources available to them," she added.

She said they had little information to give the inquiry about sexual assaults but were extremely upset about them.

At Nazareth House in 1996, a sexual abuse allegation was raised with police.

"Police advised the home in 1997 that a prosecution would not be made," Ms Smith said.

In August 1997, a further allegation of abuse against the same person was made by two people. The individual was subsequently dismissed.

Ms Smith said delays by the order in submitting evidence caused considerable difficulties. Material was not properly ordered and was still being received up to last week, despite hearings being planned for many months.

She said: "This less than whole-hearted and rapid response on the part of the congregation has caused considerable difficulties to the work of the inquiry.

"The congregation is not the only body whose approach has produced problems. We do appreciate that this is not always avoidable, but we hoped that such late delivery could have been avoided - given the difficulties which it causes for the inquiry."

She added: "Until recently the cooperation by the congregation of the sisters of Nazareth in the provision of material has not been as complete or rapid as the inquiry would have hoped."

The order was asked to cooperate voluntarily and produce documents in 2012.

Ms Smith acknowledged that the information was old and not stored in a single orderly archive.

"A considerable amount of material was provided. However, the information which the inquiry received has been provided in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion."

The inquiry team spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out which nuns were which and when they were involved in the homes.

A significant volume of information has been provided in recent days. On Friday they received two further witness statements.

Public hearings are due to finish in June 2015, with the inquiry team to report to Stormont's power-sharing Executive by the start of 2016.

Between 1950 and 1965, small numbers of nuns were involved in caring for hundreds of children in Londonderry. Help was provided by older children and volunteers.

The Sisters of Nazareth also ran an orphanage at Fahan, a few miles away in Co Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, and children were sometimes transferred across the border.

Ms Smith said in one case a child born in the Republic was sent to Derry and later moved to Australia under a migrant scheme.

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