Most complaints concerned physical abuse


SISTERS OF MERCY:THE SISTERS of Mercy ran 26 industrial schools during the period investigated by the commission, making them the largest providers of care by nuns.

It became a unified congregation in the 1980s but before that, all convents operated independently of each other.

Most complaints from former residents of these institutions concerned physical abuse but there were a number of serious incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by lay staff in the schools.

The commission report noted that the Dear Daughterdocumentary on Goldenbridge Industrial School had “an enormous impact” on the way the congregation viewed itself.

Sr Breege O’Neill, former congregation leader, told the inquiry the programme had “shattered” the image the Sisters had of their involvement in childcare.

The order issued a public apology in February 1996 and made a second one in May 2004 when former residents said the first apology was conditional and insufficient.

Goldenbridge Industrial School

Inchicore, Dublin


Status:Closed 1983

Management:Sisters of Mercy

GOLDENBRIDGE INDUSTRIAL school and orphanage, known as St Vincent’s Industrial School, opened with an intake of 30 children and rose to a high of 193 in 1964. When it closed in 1983, there were 46 pupils.

The report paints an extremely bleak picture of the institution where life was full of drudgery, punishment was pervasive and children were treated brutally by “wholly unsuitable” carers.

Some carers were former pupils who were incapable of living independently. One complainant said a helper had broken her arm after she tried to stop her hitting her brother.

“The regime in Goldenbridge, which was flawed from the outset, did not change for 30 years,” the report notes.

Former residents said they lived in “a climate of fear” where corporal punishment was the norm and emotional abuse was rife. They said the regime had “scarred them in every aspect of their lives”.

A manager, given the pseudonym Sr Alida in the report, was described as “extremely cruel” by complainants. Witnesses told of formal beatings, where they were lined up on the landing, usually late at night, and beaten with a stick, or what what Sr Alida called her “slapper”. Beatings were also given by nuns and lay staff for “offences” such as bed-wetting or being too slow when making rosary beads.

The school ran a bead-making enterprise and the children had a quota of 60 decades per day and 90 on a Saturday. They said they were beaten if their work was not satisfactory.

The committee said the claim by Sr Helena O’Donoghue, provincial leader of the south central province, that the bead-making was a pleasant activity, was “inaccurate”. The work constituted “drudgery” and “exploitation”.

A complainant said the beatings seemed to be for “very, very menial things, like maybe you stole a slice of bread, or you ate out of the rabbit’s cage or you drank water out of the toilet”.

Children who wet the bed were denied water and drank out of toilet cisterns to quench their thirst. Underwear was changed weekly and two complainants said that if marks were found the underwear was paraded on a pole.

Abuse by lay staff featured largely among complaints. One witness told how he came to the school when he was five years old, after the death of his mother. When he arrived he was “a happy young little kid” but was constantly beaten for being a bed-wetter and for being left-handed, and he developed a stutter.

Complainants said they were always hungry and recalled how scraps of bread or cake were thrown out of a window into the yard and they had to scramble for them.

Sr O’Donoghue told the hearing that while the regime would be described as “harsh and severe” by today’s standards, the Sisters of Mercy would not accept that the regime was cruel, abusive or neglectful.

St Michael’s Industrial School

Cappoquin, Co Waterford


Status:Closed 1999

Management:Sisters of Mercy

THE STORY of St Michael’s Industrial School in Cappoquin is characterised by physical and sexual abuse, a dysfunctional managing nun with an alcohol problem and severe underfeeding in the early years.

The Sisters of Mercy school opened in 1877 as a conventional industrial school but became a group home in 1974. The inquiry found that the children were “severely underfed for a long period in the 1940s and 1950s”.

However, it was the era of the group home that gave rise to the most complaints. A nun with the pseudonym Sr Callida was put in charge of Group Home A in 1975 but staff became “increasingly alarmed” at how she ran the home. She had an alcohol problem, drank in front of the children and went absent for days without notice, leaving a young woman in charge of 16 young children.

In the late 1970s, her superior asked a nun, given the pseudonym Sr Melita, to act as her companion and keep an eye on matters but Sr Melita became compromised when she and Sr Callida developed “a close intimate relationship”.

Sr Callida denied that her drinking was problematic and did not accept that she had a relationship with one of the nuns named.

The inquiry also heard that Sr Callida entertained past pupils and student priests in the home and allowed them to stay overnight. There was a lot of drinking.

Sr Callida was dismissed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, after complaints by a house mother in Group Home A. However, the manager who replaced her found that she had a close friendship with the senior social worker and the pair blocked his efforts to make changes.

A senior social worker – it’s not clear if this is the same person – gave Sr Callida “a glowing reference” after her dismissal. The South Eastern Health Board offered her the job she sought, which involved caring for a young man, despite having been informed of her dismissal.

The report found that the children were “let down by poor supervision and monitoring from the Departments of Education and Health” and said the Department of Health was negligent.

One boy recalled a nun beating him because he did not hear the bell ringing. His ears were bandaged as he had just had an operation. He had to return to the hospital after the beating. Some witnesses said the lay staff were more abusive than the nuns.

The inquiry also found that a childcare worker, given the pseudonym Mr Restin in the report, should never have been employed at Cappoquin. He had abused children in another Sisters of Mercy school in Passage West. In 2003, he was sentenced to 10 years for pornography offences and indecent assault of boys in Cappoquin and Passage West.

In the early 1970s, a complainant said he and two other boys told the resident manager at Passage West that Mr Restin was abusing children. The nun, with the pseudonym Sr Vita, lined up the boys he named and all but one denied the abuse. The complainant and the other boy were then beaten so severely that the other boy needed stitches.

Mr Restin told the inquiry he abused three boys in Cappoquin.

St Joseph’s Industrial School

Clifden, Co Galway


Status:Closed 1983

Management:Sisters of Mercy

THERE WAS a “climate of fear” in St Joseph’s, the report found.

The Sisters of Mercy originally set it up as a home for girls in 1861 but later accepted boys. The report found that the corporal punishment regime was “pervasive, and on occasions excessive”.

Former residents told of being hit with implements such as a bunch of keys and a towel roller, as well as a ruler and a cane. One woman told how, when she was 12, she and a boy were confronted by a nun for coming back late one afternoon.

The nun asked if they had had intercourse but they did not understand her. She made the boy pull down his trousers and she beat him with a cane in front of the girl.

The girl tried to escape but the nun pushed her through a glass door. Her hand went through the glass and she injured her chest on the brass knob. The nun continued to hit her with a bamboo cane. She was hospitalised for 2½ weeks but her family was never told. The school record claimed hospitalisation due to mastitis.

One complainant told the inquiry the children were “filthy, black eyes, dirty clothes or torn clothes . . . the hair was sore, and the fleas used to eat right through the hair, all scabbed”.

She never had a toothbrush in Clifden and she got a bath about once a month when all the children had to queue up naked. The water was filthy by the time the last of the girls took their bath.

One witness told how children stole food from each other’s plates because they were so hungry. Another recalled how a kind nun would allow children to eat the left-over food destined for the pigs.

Our Lady of Succour Industrial School

Newtownforbes, Co Longford


Status:Closed 1969

Management:Sisters of Mercy

NUNS AND children suffered in Our Lady of Succour because of the large number of children and small number of Sisters caring for them, the inquiry found.

Only two nuns worked full-time in the Sisters of Mercy industrial school from the mid-1940s to the 1960s at a time when numbers of children varied from 175 to fewer than 100. Most of the children sent to Newtownforbes came from Dublin, with 60 per cent committed through the Children’s Court.

Former residents who appeared before the committee complained of severe physical abuse. Children who wet the bed had to display their wet sheets to the nuns and they would then be hit around the head or beaten with a stick.

One witness told how a nun swung her around by her hair after class because she did not know her Bible passages. This caused her to be late for dinner and she was beaten with a cane.

The same witness spoke of her upset at the death of a child that she had looked after. “It haunted me all my life wondering where that child was buried because there was no funeral.” Records show that the child died of cardiac disease. The order apologised for the distress caused to the woman and said they would tell her where the child was buried.

One of the biggest grievances from residents concerned lack of education and the view they were only good for domestic service.

St Joseph’s

Industrial School

Dundalk, Co Louth


Status:Closed 1983

Management:Sisters of Mercy

PRACTICALLY EVERY child who attended St Joseph’s during the 1940s had a “verminous and nitty head” and a “neglected” appearance, the report states.

The school for girls, and later some boys, run by the Sisters of Mercy, was described as “peculiar” in medical inspectors’ reports because there never seemed to be “any lively interest taken in the children” and there was an “apathetic air about the place”.

Former residents told the inquiry team that they were subjected to beatings, emotionally abused, neglected, separated from their families and lost their sense of identity during their stay.

However, the report says that the small number of children living in the facility was an important factor in making it a less abusive place than other institutions.

Former staff acknowledged that “moderate corporal punishment” was used for “misdemeanours, disobedience, insolence and bullying”, but they denied it was ever “deliberately excessive”.

The report concludes that the children’s family contacts were not maintained and that they were “deprived” of crucial information that would have helped them form ties and establish an identity.