Nazareth homes 'cold and cruel places offering the children no chance in life'
Catholic-run homes in Northern Ireland in the 1950s were centres of "bleak lovelessness", an official at the time said.
Kathleen Forrest, a State health inspector, called for the system to be reformed after visiting the Belfast Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth.
The words of Ms Forrest were read out yesterday at the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry as it reopened in Banbridge.
The long-running inquiry is now examining abuse claims at Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge in south Belfast.
Counsel to the HIA, Christine Smith QC, yesterday quoted from Ms Forrest's 1953 report in her opening remarks to the hearing.
"I find these homes utterly depressing and it appals me to find that these children are being reared in bleak lovelessness," she wrote.
"I think we must press for a complete overhaul of the whole set-up of these homes and assist them in every way possible."
Later she visited Nazareth Lodge and said babies were well cared for, clothed and fed but schoolchildren were not getting any chance in life, knowing nothing but understaffed institutional care from babyhood.
Children were sitting with bare legs and feet waiting to wash before supper, being hissed at by an older boy to stay quiet.
"What is needed here is institutional reorganisation so that these little children can have some individual love and care rather than being dragooned."
Ms Smith also recounted the case of one 11-year-old child in 1927 from Nazareth Lodge who was found by police wandering barefoot around Belfast on a cold May morning with marks on his legs and claiming he had been beaten.
Police obtained a doctor's certificate detailing his injuries but later medical reports could find no trace of the alleged ill-treatment.
The nuns denied inflicting serious injury.
Pondering prosecution, the senior officer said: "I have no doubt that the evidence of the sisters and reverend mother would be believed before that of the boy."
The HIA Inquiry was set up in 2013 to investigate child abuse in residential institutions in Northern Ireland over a 73-year period, up to 1995.
A total of 13 Northern Ireland institutions are being investigated.
The latest module, focusing on the two Belfast homes, is the single biggest module of the inquiry, in terms of the number of witnesses who have come forward to give evidence about their time in the care of the nuns.
In another key development yesterday, it was accepted that notorious paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth abused children while they were in the care of nuns.
The serial abuser was later convicted of dozens of child abuse charges. More than 100 witnesses from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge have come forward to the inquiry.
Ms Smith QC said: "Sexual abuse of children was perpetrated by the now notorious Fr Brendan Smyth."
She added: "There will be evidence given in this module that he abused children both in Nazareth House and in Nazareth Lodge in Belfast."
Sister Brenda McCall, a senior figure in the Sisters of Nazareth order which ran the now closed Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge in south Belfast, gave a statement to the inquiry.
Ms Smith said: "She states that the congregation accepts that Brendan Smyth did abuse children while they were in our care and continued to abuse some after they left our care.
"She also accepts that he visited both Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge."
Outside the hearing, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: "It has already been established that among the abusers was notorious serial paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth, who was allowed to use both children's homes as a personal playground for his depravity.
"It is clear that the abuse suffered by the children at these two Belfast homes represents a monumental failure by both religious and State institutions."