Sisters of no mercy
In the pre- and post-war period, orphans were often sent to homes run by religious orders, such as the Sisters of Nazareth. There they found a disciplined regime which, they say, tipped over into violence. Now, decades later, more than 500 former inmates are suing the nuns for damages. Beatrix Campbell reports
Fred Aitken is 70 years old and still he is haunted by sounds – the racket of children “banging their heads against the walls of the dormitories”. The walls were in a gothic mansion called Nazareth House, an orphanage in Aberdeen where Aitken was dispatched when he was six. There, he says, nuns regularly beat him and made him witness the violent degradation of other children. Sleep was routinely interrupted by their constant checks for children wetting their beds and the beating that followed. One bed-wetter was held out of the window by her ankles as punishment. “You woke up to this thrashing. Nuns with leather straps hanging from their waist beside their rosary beads. The strap was socially acceptable. The excuse is that it was normal in those days.”
Aitken, who now lives near Chester, was taken to Nazareth House after his mother died in the 1930s. He ran away constantly, and in his early teens one of his older sisters, then living in one room, took him in and tried to take care of him. He avoided school, sauntered around shops, cinemas, anywhere warm, until he was picked up and sent to an approved school for “delinquents”. He joined the RAF and although other young men lay in their beds weeping for their mothers, Aitken thrived: the military were “the first people who treated me as a human being. I was clothed, fed, paid a weekly wage. And they didn’t beat me.” Even then Aitken was shadowed by unhappiness. In the 1960s, when he was in his 30s, he sought help. “I told a doctor about the nuns. The man said he thought I was fantasising.” It was only 30 years later, when other Nazareth House survivors began to speak out about their experiences, that his childhood and its bleak effects could no longer be dismissed as his imaginings.
The Poor Sisters of Nazareth were founded in the mid-19th century in Hammersmith, London, to take care of the young and the old. For more than a hundred years, Nazareth Houses all over Britain were home to thousands of children. They aren’t children’s homes any longer. These days the nuns look after old people. And the Poor Sisters aren’t poor (the order has £154m in the bank) – they’ve been rebranded and they’re simply Sisters.
Now the Sisters of Nazareth – the order also has houses in Australia, South Africa, the United States and Ireland – are the subject of an international campaign to call them to account for a regime of violence. In a symbolic trial in Aberdeen in 2000, one nun, known in her childcare days as Sister Alphonso, was convicted of cruel and unnatural treatment. And 40 nuns belonging to the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul are named in a civil action by more than 500 people, mostly middle-aged or elderly, who are claiming compensation from the orders. It is to be a test case, in which 11 former inmates will appear in court, and is expected to be heard in Scotland later this year.
Ranged against them are the Catholic hierarchy, the asylums’ insurers, who insist that there must be no admission of liability, and a sceptical hauteur that flourishes across the political and legal establishment. It was voiced at the highest level last year when the reforming Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, claimed that many convictions of people accused of abusing children in institutional care were flawed and that the law was in need of review. Archbishop Mario Conti, Scotland’s most senior Catholic churchman, has accused the former Nazareth House inmates of being seekers not of justice but of “pots of gold”.
Six years ago, Joseph Currie was wandering past Nazareth House in Aberdeen, the place where he, too, spent his childhood. In the grounds, he noticed that where once there were playing fields there was now a children’s nursery. Currie was horrified and took himself to the police to tell them about his memories of the place he remembered as the “House of Hell”.
Currie, now in his early 50s, lives in a Glasgow tenement. Everything in his flat is neatly arranged – his shoes, his clothes, his videos, his crockery, his correspondence. Every surface is wiped clean. This is not the work of an obsessive, he says, just typical of an orphan. The military and emergency services found those abandoned, bereaved children attractive recruits because, though they lacked education, they knew how to iron their shirts, polish their shoes and obey orders.
On the shelves around his Victorian tiled fireplace Currie displays old toy fire engines – it was his boyhood ambition to be a firefighter. On the mantelpiece there is a fading photograph of him in a grey bow tie with the queen of the Eurovision Song Contest, Katie Boyle. They’re at the annual bash of the contest’s fan club. Currie is one of the organisers. He is a fast-talking, busy man, a retired postman, “a bit of a cheeky chap, straight to the point”, he says of himself. But though he is active in progressive politics and his music club, says, “I’m also very lonely, I have to admit that.”
He was put in Nazareth House when he was two. According to his social services records, his family was “destitute” and his mother admitted selling a pair of shoes for food. Joseph had been left alone in verminous conditions. But there was worse to come. He remembers Nazareth House as dour and cruel. For years after he left in 1967, he tried to put the place out of his mind. But that walk beside his old home provoked a rush of recollections. “As a precaution, in case I died,” he made a tape-recording and put two pieces of paper in an envelope. The papers showed a copy of a newspaper photograph of Aberdeen’s Nazareth House. He had put a cross by one of the windows in the eaves. On the other piece of paper he mapped all the features of the room behind that window, its pipes, floorboards, walls, doors, a cupboard. He sent the envelope to Cameron Fyfe, a Scottish solicitor, with a note naming the boy with whom he had shared that room. His map also showed a plywood panel, a false wall, and behind that panel, he said, were some significant documents.
Joseph Currie, the orphanage child, had something important to say, but there was no one to tell it to. So he wrote to God. Now, 30 years on, he wanted the police and his solicitor to find those hidden documents because, he believed, they would confirm his recollections of his time at the orphanage. Currie took Cameron Fyfe, other lawyers and Nazareth House officials to the building, to the locked door of his former bedroom. When finally a key was found, they went in: the room was almost as he had left it, and behind a plywood panel there were his childhood documents, exactly as he had predicted.
One of them, dated Sunday April 2, 1967, pledges: “I will keep these promises seen here.” The boy forswears spending his pocket money, bad language and playing at fire engines, but the letter begins with “No Dirt At All”, the ‘No’ underlined many times. “The real meaning of ‘dirt’ was sexual abuse,” Currie says, “I felt dirty. It started when I was about eight. A man who came in as a volunteer to help bath the kids started molesting me in the bath and in the toilets.”
Currie also told his priest about the “dirt” in confession, “but he was deaf and he would say ‘speak up’. I’d come out and all the other boys would be laughing.” He told a teacher about his embarrassment and she suggested that he could go into any church. “So I went to St Mary’s Cathedral in Aberdeen and I said, ‘There’s this man comes to the home and plays with my private parts.’ The priest asked me his name and whether he was still doing it. He said, ‘Pray for him my son.’ He knew the guy because he came to Nazareth House. I thought maybe he’d do something about it. But it didn’t stop the man coming in.” The priest to whom he made his confession, he says, was Father Conti.
Archbishop Conti has strongly denied Currie’s claims, indeed he denies that he ever, “either in the context of confessional or outside the confessional, received any complaint of any kind of abuse relating to the care of children in Nazareth House”. The archbishop also accused Currie of being unreliable. Currie had likened some of his childhood documents to a diary, but the archbishop insists, “only three sheets of paper were found, two containing aspirations Joseph had listed for himself and the other listing the timing of the Benny Hill show on TV”.
Currie is one of the more than 500 bringing the action against the Sisters of Nazareth and the other orders. His childhood memories of the orphanage are filled with emotional and physical terror. He had lost his family, and letters from his siblings and his mother were never given to him. For a minor misdemeanour, children had to kneel down and face the wall of the main corridor while nuns passed. “Some would smack you as they came by. You’d hear their footsteps but you didn’t know who they were. It was a form of mental torture.”
Another inmate, Helen Cusiter, returned to Nazareth House six or seven years ago, to visit a woman who was working there. An unexpected encounter with one of the nuns she’d known when she was at the orphanage – Sister Alphonso – changed her life.
“I started screaming. She asked me to go upstairs and tell her how I was getting on. She started to tell me how wonderful it was working with the old people, but her hands were shaking. She asked, ‘What do you remember about your childhood?’ I said, ‘Every bit.’ She said, ‘I was young at the time and I was just following orders.’ She never said, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Cusiter fled home from that meeting with the nun. “I had a panic attack – I thought I was having a heart attack. Then there were all these flashbacks.” Her days and nights were haunted. Her own fond family life with her husband and children was swamped by her fears: “What if I was in a crash with my husband and Sister Alphonso got my children? What if I ended up in Nazareth House as an old person?” She became imprisoned in the safety of her own home. She was overwhelmed by shame – ashamed of leaving other children behind, of failing to protect them from harm.
Eventually, four years after her encounter with Sister Alphonso, she went to a solicitor. “He sat, feet on the table, and said there were several options. ‘Is it money you’re after?’ I said no.” Instead she decided to go to the police. “I was passed to the child abuse unit at the age of 39.” That was in 1996. Grampian police advised her to get a lawyer and began to interview other residents, crosschecking dates and names to verify the growing archive of allegations against the order.
Cusiter became one of the former inmates whose evidence initiated the unprecedented criminal prosecution in Scotland in autumn 2000, when Sister Alphonso, appearing as Marie Docherty, was convicted of four charges of cruel and unnatural treatment. Sheriff Colin Harris ordered that several other charges be rejected and said that he would only admonish, rather than imprison, her because of her age and her health.
Cusiter recalls a particular incident when Sister Alphonso came for her while she was playing on swings. “She took me off by the hair, twisted me round and threw me against the church wall,” she says. “She broke all my front teeth, my face was a mashed mess, the other kids were all screaming.” Helen Howie, a 77-year-old woman who had been raised in the orphanage and later worked there as a helper, still remembers the blood on Cusiter’s face. “Sister Alphonso didn’t use leather straps, she used her fists, she had some strength.” When the child was taken to the dentist, he asked, “What’s all this bruising?” She fell, he was told.
Cusiter was eight when her mother disappeared and she and her five brothers and sisters were taken from Glasgow to Aberdeen’s Nazareth House. There were separate quarters for boys and girls, and the siblings were allowed no communication, though they would see each other across a crowded church on Sundays and on the school bus. After leaving Nazareth House, the six were never again in the same room together. Helen’s younger brother grew up a distressed, drifting young man. “Most of the time he was like a recluse. Finally, he took his own life. He told me he’d been sexually abused by a priest. He’d never told anyone. It was so tragic.”
Of her time at the orphanage, Cusiter remembers the raucous insults that came from the mouths of the supposedly pious sisters: “They’d say, ‘No wonder your mother left you… whore… freak… Glasgow trash… I’d have left you… you’re just Glasgow tinks.’ ”
Like other inmates, Cusiter vividly recalls night-time. “They’d come round the beds and make sure you were in the right position – flat on your back with arms crossed out of the covers (otherwise you’d be touching yourself). If you were lying on your side, you’d be yanked back. They’d lift the covers to see if your bed was wet. If it was, then you’d be yanked out, called all filthy names.”
Some former residents say they were sexually abused – Cusiter remembers a driver who “would touch up the boys and the girls” and, she says, a child would often be used to keep watch while one of the handymen pursued his sexual relationship with a nun – but most of the cases against the Sisters of Nazareth concern physical violence. Mealtimes, predictably, were the occasion of routine power struggles between nuns and children. Cusiter says she was force-fed: “She’d be pulling your head back, then she’d hold your nose so you couldn’t breathe, until your mouth opened, and she’d shove food in. Then you’d choke and the food would end up on your plate again and she would force-feed you your own vomit. That started from the moment I went in there.”
Other inmates have similar memories. A retired telephonist living in an elegant Glasgow apartment block for senior citizens recalls that “several of the children were force-fed. One of them was my sister. She was three or four years old. I saw it.”
She had been sent with her sisters to Glasgow’s Nazareth House from their home in the Highlands after their mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that was still “like a death knell in the 1950s”. She was eight. Her first night was marked by her younger sister’s screams as she was taken off to a separate dormitory. She, too, remembers the nuns’ nocturnal inspections.
“Wetting the bed was a nightmare – they’d strip the covers off and the child would be made to stand with the wet sheets for hours, to set an example. They stood there like ghosts, covered in the wet sheets. My sister didn’t wet the bed at home, but one night she was crying and came to us and said she’d wet the bed. So we swapped our sheets for her, rinsed the wet one out and went to dry it on the radiator. But it was off. So we sat on the sheet to dry it – we were only children. My sister got caned on the hands and the back for that. The nun would roll her sleeves up, so she got a real good whack. I felt she took relish out of that.”
Punishment was perpetually lurking: “You never knew when or what. There is still never a day when my sister does not fear being punished for something. We were just miserable people, that was all.”
Enduring companionship between friends and siblings seemed to be discouraged. Sometimes companions simply disappeared. The retired telephonist has never forgotten the summer of 1955 when the children of Cardonald Nazareth House in Glasgow went to Aberdeen on an exchange. This was their holiday. “We were taken to the beach, it was so grey and wild and windy, we were frozen.” The girls were told to change into their swimsuits while the nuns huddled together in a beach hut. “My sister and her friend Betsy Owens were playing with a beach ball. It blew into the sea and they went into retrieve it, a stupid plastic ball – of course, they wouldn’t have dared do otherwise. Betsy was drowned. We saw her being brought out of the water.”
Her younger sister has never forgotten that day: she could scarcely swim, but managed to grasp a long log. “I held on tight but the waves kept dashing me against the wood and my leg was badly gashed. Eventually I was rescued by a small boat, but it was terrifying.” Her big sister saw her being lifted out of the water, “all cut and bleeding. One of the nuns said: ‘You watch you don’t get blood on your dress or you’ll catch it.’ My sister and I have tried unsuccessfully to follow this up. There was no record of Betsy after that incident, nothing. No prayers. No mass. Nothing.”
The Edinburgh lawyer representing Nazareth House, Dr Pamela Abernathy, insists, “No one still alive who was intimately connected with Nazareth House at the time has any recollection of such an incident, nor are there any records of the death of any child during that period.”
When the retired telephonist recently began to make inquiries about Betsy Owens, the order responded by denying any knowledge that she herself had ever been there that summer. They said there were no records of her presence. It seems that, she, like Betsy Owens, might never have existed. But in her collection of personal records, there is the evidence: a telegram adorned with top hats and lucky horseshoes, addressed to her at Aberdeen’s Nazareth House on August 3, 1955, saying, “Happy Birthday Darling, from Mummy.” She was there.
This woman, like Currie and Cusiter, has joined the civil action against the Sisters of Nazareth because they believe it is the only way of calling the order to account. She and her sisters were in Nazareth House for just 18 months – they left when their father, who regularly made the long trek across the country to see his daughters, suddenly arrived in his work clothes to take them away. To this day, she doesn’t know what had so alarmed him – all visits were patrolled by nuns who remained in the room, like sentries. The children didn’t speak about what had happened, “none of us did, believe it or not”. But it left the family with inconsolable sadness. “We had wonderful parents. Right to her death, Mum kept saying, ‘If only I hadn’t got ill.’ She thought it was her fault. It broke her heart.” Her father took the child to the local priest “to explain what he’d discovered and how angry he was for his children, but the priest never took it up”.
Her own efforts to challenge the hierarchy of the church have been distressing and her association with the public campaign against the Sisters enraged other members of her congregation. “I was spat on. After we pray, we shake hands, but one woman refused and said I was bringing the church down. I said, ‘No, this is about crimes against children.’ ”
She is outraged by suggestions that her motivation is securing compensation. “I didn’t want money. We have tried every way to get the church to accept what happened, but they’ve done nothing. Nothing. These are major things, the experience was a severe danger to people’s lives.” She points out that “15 members of my group have taken their own lives. I am all right, I’m surviving. I don’t need financial help. Money would never take away what happened – God’s representatives on earth behaving in such an appalling manner.” She had worried about what had happened for years. “I need answers, not just about Betsy but about the whole damned thing. I telephoned Cardinal Winning, and asked him to do something about all the things that were coming to light about Nazareth House. He said very little, I would have liked him just to say sorry. He wasn’t prepared to accept that it was the truth. I felt terrible all over again.”
Kathleen Batey, a 47-year-old cleaner living near Newcastle United Football Club’s mighty stadium, is not one of the campaigners seeking legal redress. She has never consulted lawyers, nor sought compensation from the church. “I don’t want their money,” she says. “I just want it out of my mind.” And, like all of those involved in the civil action, she wants to have her story heard.
Kathleen Batey’s back is lined with a ladder of scars – they are the relics of her life at Nazareth House in Tyneside, received, she says, when nuns took off the belts buckled round their habits and beat her. She was sent to the orphanage, with her brother, when she was five – her grandmother had just died, her mother had left, and her father felt he could not take care of the children. She remembers Nazareth the house as “spooky, horrible”. She, too, remembers children being force-fed, and also being required to work. “There was a big polished floor, it was really polished. They’d cut up woollen jumpers and we had to put them on our feet and we had to skate on the floor and make sure the shine came up. If you did it wrong, you got a clip.” Or worse. “The nuns would take off the belt and just hit you with it. It was just the routine.”
The punishments accelerated, she says, after she and her brother began running away. In vain, they’d find their father, but before long the police would turn up to take them back. Their father didn’t stop them: “I thought there was nobody. Dad didn’t want us, nobody loved us, no one took care of us.” The violence in the orphanage didn’t seem exceptional to her, just part of life.
What often makes detection of childhood abuse difficult for the police is that it’s an adult’s word against a child’s, and there often isn’t any surviving physical evidence (a sign, say the sceptics, that abuse didn’t happen or that it didn’t cause any harm). This may be qualified in cases of alleged institutional abuse because there is sometimes a chain of corroboration. Cameron Fyfe says there’s no great problem of proof in this case: individuals who have not seen each other for years, who may scarcely remember each other, are corroborating each other’s narratives. They are recalling what were, after all, very public regimes of pain and punishment.
The survivors have to get past the argument that the religious orders merely delivered the discipline that was standardised, sanctioned and universal in those days. The Sisters of Nazareth lawyer, Dr Abernathy, points out that Nazareth Houses were overseen by local authorities and by the government. There were frequent visits by “children’s officers, town councillors, inspectors, including doctors and psychologists from the home and health department”.
None the less, there have been scandals and debates within the church about the ill-treatment of children for decades. Eoin O’Sullivan, the Irish historian of Catholic orphanages and schools, cites a very public challenge to the church by Father Flanagan, the priest whose humane childcare was the model for Spencer Tracy in the film, Men Of Boys Town. This embarrassed both church and state in the 1940s. “Violence was an intrinsic part of the culture of these institutions,” O’Sullivan says; they were committed to the “destruction of will”. He has unearthed state archives revealing many complaints about cruelty and inspectors’ concerns about “dangerous and undesirable punishment”. Violent discipline, he says, was not uncontested.
Father Tindall, the church’s child protection coordinator in the north-east of England, ventured: “Too much of the organised culture of the church was very disciplined and rule-bound, and gave an opportunity for people under pressure to use the language of discipline to be punitive.”
What was it, though, that caused such cruelty by women? Sister Margaret McCurtain, a glinting Dominican scholar and one of Ireland’s best-known Catholic reformers, suggests the “sexual oppression of nuns could emerge later in the form of cruelty”. She also comments that the very notion of charity was “a virtue that never brought with it affectivity.” Feminist scholar Ailbhe Smyth adds, “Christianity tells us that we have to help the poor, but we don’t have to like them. It is a Christian duty, for your greater glory, not theirs. There is, in this context, an absence of any recognition that tenderness should be the norm in relations between adults and children.”
The orphanage survivors’ civil case must show that their complaints refer not just to rogue nuns but to a regime for which the order itself was responsible. Cameron Fyfe insists that similar stories have surfaced against the Sisters of Nazareth in Australia and Ireland, where their practices, such as the response to bed-wetting and the force-feeding, “were very similar and esoteric”. Fyfe argues that the cultures of orphanages and schools tend to be specific and different – he also represents clients who were in the hands of the de la Salle monks in Britain, against whom there are more allegations of sexual abuse than there are against the Nazareth House nuns.
The Nazareth House children face another difficulty: the time bar. “After a real struggle, we have persuaded the legal aid board to support 11 test cases,” says Fyfe. All of these concern allegations of ill-treatment after 1964. The current limit on cases before that date is being challenged in the courts, and members of the Scottish parliament are mooting a change in the law. If that fails, Fyfe intends to take the challenge to the European Court of Human Rights.
Cases are being compiled in England, too, though there seems to be some reluctance to prosecute physical abuse. Sex with children is a crime, but “reasonable chastisement is still a lawful reason for inflicting pain on children,” explains David Spicer, a barrister and former chair of the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Dr Abernathy denies the allegations of cruelty and abuse, and argues that for 130 years the Sisters of Nazareth “devoted their entire lives to the care of orphans, abandoned children, children from broken homes and in many cases children referred from the courts. Many of these unfortunate children suffered consequential emotional disturbance, and some of them no other institutions would accept.”
Francis Docherty is 58 and runs a helpline, Historical Survivors of In-Care Abuse, whose cases include people as old as 95 who are still suffering, still searching for their lost brothers and sisters, still trying to sort things out. He was brought up in Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. “The horrifying thing was that being hurt by implements was bad enough, but to see a holy person, a righteous person with – I don’t want to exaggerate – a face full of hate, an angelic, holy face turning into a face of horror, a woman crunching her teeth in hate, going berserk, screaming while you are pleading for mercy, the wee leather boots just booting into you. Bruises go away, but the horror stays in your mind.”
Docherty, too, has joined the action against the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Nazareth. “This isn’t revenge against the Catholic church, we just want them to come out of denial. They’ve always ruled by fear. It’s their power mania. These people told you that you were the scum of the earth. Maybe you started to believe it.”
Docherty worked for most of his life as a driver, and for as many years he has been “in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous. I haven’t taken a drink for more than five years,” he says. He is never surprised by attempts to discredit people like himself. “We’ve had a lifetime of being accused of being liars and cheats, searching for a pot of gold.” Archbishop Conti has not only accused the victims of seeking pots of gold, he has told them that, “on your part, there is a need to forgive”. That’s not up to the Archbishop, says Docherty. “It’s up to us whether we want to forgive. Give us an apology. All we want is for the Catholic church to change its ways and let us live in peace.”