While nuns are notorious for being tough, there is a line, and those at the Sisters of Nazareth definitely crossed it at care homes in Derry, Northern Ireland. As part of an ongoing investigation of possible abuses in child care services during the 20th century projected to last into the summer of next year, a public inquiry uncovered shocking reports of child abuse and horrific experiences from more than 400 people who had spent time at one of two homes run by the nuns. What they described was nothing short of appalling, and it speaks to a troubling need to audit long-term care facilities for children more closely.
When children are placed into care because they’re orphaned or removed from bad home situations and there are no alternative placements for them, they may end up in care homes, sometimes for extended periods of time. The same is true in both the United States and the UK, where various groups oversee care homes. They’re charged with the safety and welfare of their inmates, as well as making sure they access educations and other social benefits.
What happened at Nazareth House and St. Joseph’s Home, however, was more like a nightmare. One witness described his experiences as a “hellhole,” and narrated a story of physical abuse from nuns, sexual assault and forced labor in the setting of the home. He was just one of many witnesses who came forward to discuss what they’d endured.
Among the highlights, or lowlights, more aptly, of their testimony:
- Children who wet the bed were beaten and forced to wear the soiled sheets as a form of humiliation.
- Those who were sick were compelled to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant.
- Children were known by numbers instead of names.
- Sticks, straps, and kettle flexes were used to beat children, sometimes extremely viciously.
- Children were sent out as farm laborers or forced to work in the home instead of being provided with access to schools.
- Children who “misbehaved” were locked in closets and intimidated with threats of being sent to adult psychiatric institutions.
- The nuns tolerated bullying and sexual assault among the children, and some witnesses also reported sexual assaults by priests and at least one nun as well.
Troublingly, a report of sexual assault in the mid-1990s was dismissed, leading to a second report the very next year against the same individual. This was an opportunity for the outside community to intervene at the home that wasn’t followed up.
While the inquiry is focused on the treatment of children in care in the 1920s through mid-1990s, with a special look at children placed under the care of religious orders, the findings are important for modern care settings as well, where documented abuse is an ongoing issue. These findings could have significant legal and social implications in Northern Ireland, where people are already outraged by the emerging testimony on the subject. Witness complaints may be turned into criminal prosecutions, and there could be grounds for civil relief as well for those who have waited a long time for justice.
It also raises important questions about what is going on under the roofs of care facilities today. Are children safe, warm and well-fed? Are they going to school and being provided with regular medical care? Are they free of harassment, bullying and sexual assault? When we take children into care, are we providing them with everything we’ve promised? We owe it not just to them, but to the generations of children who have gone before.
Photo credit: anthony kelly.