‘There was never any point in screaming or crying. We would just be hit’
Katie Walmsley who gave evidence to the Historical Abuse inquiry in Belfast, talks to Sinéad O’Shea
Katie’s mother left her family when she was eight years old. Her father moved the family to his hometown, Derry, where a local priest suggested that the best place for Katie would be a children’s home run by the nuns.
There, her “duty” was to clean the toilets. Sometimes she would be called from class to come and unblock a toilet, lifting excrement out with her hands. She would scrape it off the wall with her fingernails. The nuns made her sleep beside the door because she was too “smelly” to sleep further inside the dormitory.
One day at confession, the priest called her by her name. “ I thought God must have told him that it was me. I was one side of the box. He took me into the wee middle of the box. Then he sat me on his knee, starting touching me down there and told me to run along.”
The abuse escalated and by the time she was 12, he had raped her.
Her weekly bath was filled with Jeyes Fluid. It used to take place soon after the abuse. She’ll never forget the pain around her private parts. She would stand up after the bath and think that she was about to pass out.
“There was never any point in screaming or crying. We would just be hit.”
I met Katie Walmsley in Belfast where she was getting ready to testify before the Inquiry into Historical Abuse last Wednesday, February 12th. Katie is a small, delicate woman in her fifties. She is certain now that the nuns knew about the priest’s abuse.
There was shock initially that such things could have happened in Northern Ireland which was Protestant run and apparently freer of Catholic influence. Actually, the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism may have helped facilitate them.
Jon McCort, a peace campaigner from Derry, who was also a “home boy”, believes that the authorities often knew and didn’t want to act. He thinks that some of this might have been linked to housing policy in Derry at the time which was linked to votes. The more Catholics who got state housing, the more votes they would have. Putting Catholics into institutions reduced the list.
Journalist Eamon McCann told Al Jazeera English recently that he thinks it suited both the Church and the Protestant government to work together on this. It kept children off the streets, out of Republicanism and provided an income to the Church.
Accordingly, the nuns were paid child benefit. Though, as Katie remembers, they would still scream into their faces that they were being forced to “beg” to feed them.
The children were given pig slops to eat. Many of the girls used to get sick. The nuns told them they were vomiting their souls up. Katie recalls being made to eat her own vomit. She has been suffering from bulimia intermittently since.
I once spoke with the late Mary Raftery about how children could have been dehumanised in Ireland to this extent. She felt it was related to the culture of the time. People were very poor and terrified of further impoverishment. These children represented the “lowest” rung of the ladder. The clergy could do exactly as they wished to them. Few really cared.
The internal structures of the Catholic church greatly complemented the Irish mindset. As the UN committee on Child Abuse reported last week, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interest.
In Ireland the influence of the Catholic church may have declined but have the other factors changed? Does the state continue to engage in damaging arrangements with other powerful bodies? Is there less preoccupation with respectability and the avoidance of poverty? How much has the fear of challenging authority or the status quo evolved? Is there still the same anxiety of somehow being contaminated by the vulnerable?
Katie’s problem wasn’t just the priest who anally raped her as a child, it was also the nuns who failed to notice and who beat and humiliated her. Most of all, it was a communal mindset which craved approbation and demeaned children like her to such an extent that complaint seemed pointless, in fact counter productive. There was nowhere else to turn for such children other than upon themselves.
After a period of homelessness and a brief reunion with her mother, Katie married at the age of sixteen. The relationship didn’t last, her first child was taken away. She had two more children in her twenties and five miscarriages. She has attempted suicide on numerous occasions.
A few years ago, she met a woman called Margaret McGuckian who has set up a support organisation called SAVIA. Margaret and Katie tell me terrible stories about the treatment experienced by other boys and girls at the hands of the clergy. Margaret too has survived the homes. She grew up to become involved in the Troubles and became known as the “best fighter and the “best man on the Ormeau Road.”
Like many abuse survivors Margaret and Katie have long sought to understand why this happened. Several times they tell me that part of the problem was that the nuns and priests didn’t want to be there either. They also use the word “respectability.” Often it was relatives that put them there, who wanted a priest in the family. Katie says she is doing better than she thought she would be at this point and is happy that her story is being heard. She wants to make clear that she doesn’t think all nuns are bad. She starts crying when she tells me about a nun called Sr Corina who was nice to her. She also asks me to emphasise that she has never wanted to hurt anyone and that she is not a bad person.