Scottish inquiry: Children endured abuse at sister-run orphanages

A view of the former Smyllum Park Orphanage in Lanark, Scotland (Newscom/ ZUMA Press/ Jane Barlow)

As scandals over sexual abuse and bullying in the Catholic Church spread globally in recent years, women religious orders seemed to have been spared the worst accusations. 

Yet the tidy image was jolted this October, when a congregation of nuns in Scotland faced charges in an official report of showing "no love, no compassion, no dignity and no comfort" to children in its care.

"Catholics in Scotland are as horrified as anyone else, and I know from my own reporting experience how this hurts morale," said Daniel Harkins, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, Scotland's national Catholic newspaper. 

"The church can only apologize and make reparations while ensuring procedures are in place to stop such abuse from happening again. Its focus shouldn't be on appearances but on practical reforms." 

The Glasgow-based editor was reacting to fallout from the Oct. 11 report from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry on orphanages run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, highlighting physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect and mistreatment of their young charges. The inquiry covered around 60 years, a period judged to be within living memory.

The report was the first of a series of planned case studies on religious and secular care institutions in Scotland that are expected to lead to more general conclusions and proposals about past failures and shortcomings as well as proposals for future safeguarding. 

And while Catholic observers of the inquiry are stressing the church itself isn't directly implicated, given the autonomous status of religious orders, they agree the revelations have caused shock and bewilderment in a community still reeling from the abuse-linked 2013 resignation of its leader, Cardinal Keith O'Brien.

"Much of secular society has already had a negative opinion of the church, often because of abuse scandals in the wider church outside Britain," Harkins told GSR. "There's some frustration that the media only focus on stories of abuse while ignoring the work of Catholic parishes, individuals and charities for Scottish society. But even if there's a lack of nuance, no one denies the crimes that took place." 

Launched in early 2015 under Lady Anne Smith, a Supreme Court judge, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry parallels abuse commissions in Britain, Australia and elsewhere, investigating the mistreatment of children — physical and sexual, psychological and emotional — at residential and foster homes across Scotland. 

The inquiry's website says it may also consider neglect and "spiritual abuse." Besides raising public awareness, it aims to consider how past failures have since been "addressed by changes to practice, policy or legislation." 

In its first report, however, it focused on two now-closed Daughters of Charity orphanages, Smyllum Park in Lanark and Bellevue House at Rutherglen, which together took in over 18,000 children from their foundings in 1864 and 1912, respectively.

Victims testify about past abuse

The document says the orphanages were governed by "excessive discipline," with many children facing prolonged abuse by nuns, priests and staffers as well as "problematic sexual behaviour" by other children.

Children were hit, often inexplicably, with an implement known as the "Lochgelly Tawse" as well as with straps, sticks, hairbrushes and shoes, even rosaries and crucifixes, in a system of punishments that "went beyond what was acceptable at the time," the document says.

Many were also force-fed, used as unpaid labor and forced to share cold and dirty bathwater, the document notes. Some were abused for being Protestants or Jews. 

There were frequent deaths. A malnourished 6-year-old, Samuel Carr, died at Smyllum from an infection contracted from a rat after one of the nuns severely beat him, while a 12-year-old, Patricia Meenan, was hit and killed by a passing car when she attempted to escape the home, which closed in 1981.

In December 2017 a former resident of Smyllum who lived at the institution in the 1960s told the inquiry there was a "culture of evil among religious orders" at that time.

A nun identified as Sister Louise, who was raised at Smyllum and Bellevue from age 10, told the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry she had been sexually mistreated and beaten, adding that her abiding memory was one of fear. 

The Daughters of Charity would be lying if they denied abuse had taken place, Sister Louise testified. 

In September 2017, the BBC reported on the existence of an overgrown mass grave at St. Mary's Cemetery in Lanark believed to contain the remains of some 400 Smyllum children. 

The research drew on discoveries of an unmarked burial site in 2003 by two now-dead former Smyllum inmates, Frank Docherty and Jim Kane, and detailed death records indicating that most had died from common diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and pleurisy. 

Smyllum's death rate up to 1930 was three times the Scottish average, with an average of one child dying every three months, a third of them at or below the age of 5, the BBC reported.

Glasgow's Herald daily said anger and frustration were growing at the nuns' original insistence during preliminary investigations that they had no records of any abuse as well as their failure to provide information about the dead children. 

While 54 witnesses personally testified before the inquiry and 21 submitted written statements, the paper reported, at least 100 civil lawsuits have also been launched against the Daughters of Charity, whose 18,000-member order, founded in 1633, has branches in 94 countries.

The Daughters of Charity have since acknowledged and apologized for the abuse.

Giving evidence in January, Sr. Ellen Flynn, superior of the Daughters of Charity, broke down in tears, saying her nuns had not properly engaged with the abuse accusations when they first emerged in the 1990s. She said the "horrifying" accounts were "completely bewildering" when set against what the Daughters of Charity stood for. 

"The core of our being is to be there for vulnerable people in distress, and I think this has been wrenched," Flynn told the inquiry. "We accompany people who suffer with long-lasting effects of things that have happened to them. So we feel the impact, and for any child abused while in our care, we would feel a very, very deep sense of regret."

In a statement after the report's October publication, the Daughters of Charity reiterated its findings were "totally out of keeping" with the order's "fundamental values" and offered its "heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered any form of abuse."

The brief statement made no reference to financial compensation or restitution by the order, which no longer runs residential homes in Scotland. 

Heather Marston, a spokesperson for the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, told GSR the inquiry had looked at other abuse investigations abroad to learn from their work but had not intended to "single out" Catholic institutions.

She added that the inquiry would be going on to look at private schools, local authority orphanages and homes run by Barnardo's Scotland and other secular charities, but she cautioned that the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry has no powers of prosecution or legal enforcement.

However, police and prosecutors have been present at the inquiry's sessions, and in late August, Scotland's Crown Office announced 13 people, mostly women aged 65 to 85, had been arrested and charged in connection with events at Smyllum, with additional cases pending. For legal reasons, the office declined to specify whether those arrested were members of the Daughters of Charity, though news reports said they included elderly nuns. 

A further report is expected in early 2019 into Scottish homes run by another Catholic order, the London-based Sisters of Nazareth, a dozen of whose nuns were cross-examined during the summer. 

The Herald reported that the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry had studied 220,000 files and handled over 300 complaints against the Nazareth order. It had listed 194 nuns, priests and staffers working over a 50-year period beginning in the 1920s at its orphanages in Aberdeen, Cardonald, Lasswade and Kilmarnock, all of which closed in the 1980s.

"Although the inquiry has no legal controls, we have been able to get advice about how to deal with Catholic institutions and the sort of problems we're likely to encounter, especially since some religious orders are international," Marston told GSR.

"But our more general findings, overviews and recommendations will all come on a wider scale at the end of the inquiry. For now, we're just focusing on the case studies, and we're not suggesting these are somehow typical."

Members of Scotland's bishops' conference, including retired Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, gave evidence in the inquiry in June, especially on the church's relationship with religious orders.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and predominant Presbyterian Church of Scotland also apologized for past abuse. A bishops' conference staffer, Msgr. Thomas Boyle, said "red flags and warning signs" had been missed, leaving Catholics everywhere with an "overwhelming sense of shame."

Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said the church as a whole was not directly involved, since its parishes did not house children, and would not be issuing official statements about the inquiry and its findings. 

Inquiry's proceedings 'difficult,' 'upsetting'

Although Smith and her team chose to begin their enquiries with Catholic orders, Kearney told GSR, there was also concern that the inquiry's use of case studies, however detailed, would not present a true picture of Catholic residential care.

During the 60-year period the inquiry covered, over 400,000 children experienced residential care in Scotland, Kearney said, the vast majority in non-Catholic homes. 

And while complaints, investigations and convictions could indicate which types of institution were worst affected, the overall proportion of children suffering abuse was hard to establish. 

"Catholics represent only 16 percent of Scotland's population, and Catholic religious orders didn't supply most residential care in the past. That was provided by local authorities," Kearney told GSR. 

"Putting Catholic religious orders at the top of the inquiry's agenda has thus created a skewed perspective. And while the inquiry has the potential to bring a balanced perspective to the issue of the abuse of children in care, it hasn't done so yet. But its proceedings have been difficult and upsetting for Catholics and very damaging for the Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Nazareth."

Just how severe the damage will be remains to be seen.

In 2015, the bishops' conference published an independent review headed by the Rev. Andrew McLellan, a former Church of Scotland moderator, of the Catholic Church's safeguarding procedures, which are now being overseen by an independent review group under Baroness Helen Liddell.

In May, the prelate in charge of safeguarding, Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell, published new guidelines, assuring Scottish Catholics in a pastoral letter that their bishops aspired "to the highest standards of care and protection of all" and were determined to "renew, rebuild and restore faith and hope in the church" through "compassion, healing and justice." 

The guidelines were presented to Pope Francis in September during the Scottish bishops' ad limina visit to Rome.

But with media reports amplifying the picture of past abuse, particularly at order-run homes, the bishops will face a tough task.

Kearney said abuse allegations have dropped sharply. 

In March, a church-commissioned review recorded 379 complaints, mostly involving physical violence, against Catholic priests and nuns from 1943 to 2005, drawing on records from dioceses and religious orders. While the highest number was recorded in the early 1950s, complaints fell to around five per year after 1990 and are now even fewer, according to annual audits examined by Liddell's review group.

"Safeguarding is always a work in progress, in which best practices evolve, develop and change over time," Kearney told GSR.

"But children come into contact with the church today through schools and parishes rather than in a residential context, and we believe our protections are of a high standard. Any abuse is totally unacceptable, and it's disappointing that media tropes and clichés about nuns abusing children are still being repeated when we know the majority of children were cared for properly." 

Addressing the church's Conference of Religious on Oct. 16, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley injected a note of optimism, praising the country's nuns as the church's "unseen beating heart" and citing their often-unnoticed work among the poor, sick and lonely. 

The conference, grouping over 30 orders, still aims in its mission statement to empower men and women religious "to be prophetic witnesses in today's society, speaking out on the vital issues which influence the lives of the people of Scotland and beyond."

With Smith's inquiry still continuing, however, living up to that bold commitment will remain a challenge.

Harkins, the Scottish Catholic Observer editor, said there's bitterness among many church members as to how reports of historical abuse have diverted attention away from the positive, sacrificial work done daily by Scotland's nuns. But this, at least, is nothing new.

"In keeping with Catholics generally, the religious are aware that these historical cases are a small, if significant, part of the overall picture of the church in Scotland," Harkins told GSR.

"Although the church has made clear they couldn't be repeated in the current environment, it might stand accused of trying to negate the seriousness of past mistakes if it stresses this point. So when it comes to reassuring people, I think the Scottish bishops are aware they can never do enough." 

[Jonathan Luxmoore covers church news from Oxford, England, and Warsaw, Poland. The God of the Gulag is his two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, published by Gracewing in 2016.]

Read the latest from The Life: Do you think sisters should be politically active?