Sr Xavieria Lally of the Goldenbridge industrial school in Dublin, had been "demonised and vilified" over the past decade, with this "accepted in the public domain as fact", Sr Helena O'Donoghue of the Sisters of Mercy told the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse yesterday.
The nuns' denials that children in the industrial school were "abused in a horrific way" had been "almost completely ignored", she said.
Sr O'Donoghue, provincial leader of the south central province of the Sisters of Mercy congregation, was giving evidence to the commission's investigation committee, which held a public hearing on St Vincent's industrial school, Goldenbridge, yesterday. Proceedings on the school go into private session from Friday, until April 27th.
Sr O'Donoghue noted that,despite Garda investigation of complaints made after the 1996 Dear Daughter programme on Goldenbridge was broadcast, no criminal charges were brought.
The allegations of child abuse there "was a source of deep shock to us", she said, and led to the congregation's first apology in February 1996, for pain and hurt suffered. The congregation apologised again in May 2004.
"I reiterate those apologies. There were many aspects of Goldenbridge we deeply regret, but there were some serious, extraordinary allegations, especially as regards Sr Xavieria, which we do not, we cannot accept as correct - allegations of extreme physical punishment, starvation, malnourishment, or any child dead due to mistreatment," she said.
Sr O'Donoghue was concerned such allegations appeared to have been accepted by the court of public opinion without any apparent examination.
From the 1940s there were 185 children at the school at any one time, with a staff ratio of one to every 30+ children round the clock. There was no training in childcare and the capitation system made it financially difficult. The regimental style with which the school was run emphasised conformity and relied on corporal punishment to maintain discipline. Sr O'Donoghue deeply regretted in particular the use of such punishment on children with bed-wetting problems.
She recalled the "particular bitterness of some former residents" where the practice of making rosary beads was concerned. Between 4pm and 6pm on weekdays, the children had to assemble 60 decades each, a quota which was to be completed after tea if not done before. She was unable to say whether the children were punished if they did not meet their quota.
She recalled there had been a small number of sex-abuse complaints, with just one definite. It concerned a groundsman who was complained of by one of the girls in 1962. The gardaí were informed by Sr Xavieria. The man was prosecuted and dismissed from his job.
Prior to Dear Daughter the congregation employed a childcare expert to look at complaints who, following preliminary investigation, found them "broadly credible". It had also found that the regime (at Goldenbridge) was inadequate and did not meet the basic needs of the children.
There was no evidence of any complaints in the school archive, which Sr O'Donoghue said was "minimal" and she could not explain why there were no punishment books extant there, despite legislation prescribing these should be kept.
Inspectorate reports from the Department of Education, as discovered from Department files, were "consistently positive" from 1945, she said.
Senior counsel for the former residents John Rogers failed to secure an assurance from Mr Justice Seán Ryan that they would have a guaranteed opportunity to challenge Sr O'Donoghue's comments on the allegations in the third phase of these proceedings.
Nor was he allowed introduce details from the 1996 report commissioned by the Sisters of Mercy, though it was agreed Sr O'Donoghue might be asked whether she accepted the report. She said she did, within its limitations.