Some children at residential homes run by Catholic nuns in Northern Ireland were made to eat their own vomit, a lawyer said.
Those who wet their beds were forced to put soiled sheets on their heads by members of a harsh regime which was devoid of love, the UK’s largest ever public inquiry into child abuse at residential homes was told.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Londonderry were known by their numbers rather than names and many allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, counsel to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Christine Smith QC said.
Kathleen Forrest, a ministry of home affairs inspector, said in a 1953 report: “I find these homes utterly depressing and it appals me to think that these hundreds of children are being reared in bleak lovelessness.”
The treatment of children in church-run residential homes is a key concern of the investigation being held in Banbridge. It is chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart and is considering cases between 1922, the foundation of Northern Ireland, and 1995.
The Nazareth House Children’s Home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Londonderry. Those allegedly abused there will give evidence later this week. The religious order has already issued a public apology.
Ms Forrest inspected the Londonderry homes and two more run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast.
“The children in these homes have nothing like a normal upbringing. They must feel unloved as it is just not possible for the number of staff to show affection to such a large number of children,” she said.
“They can know nothing or little of the world outside and must be completely unprepared for it, either in character or knowledge.”
She added: “This is not meant entirely as a criticism of staff, but their task is impossible.”
Ms Smith outlined details of the alleged abuse, which included physical assaults using sticks, straps and kettle flexes.
• Bathing in Jeyes fluid disinfectant, today more associated with outdoor cleaning jobs like clearing drains;
• Bullying by their peers;
• Separation of brothers and sisters, not even telling them if they were in the same home;
• Locking in cupboards or threatening to send them to a hospital for those with learning disabilities at Muckamore Abbey in Antrim;
• Humiliating children for bed wetting, forcing them to stand with the sheets on their heads and beating them as punishment;
• Forced farm labouring or working in the laundry instead of going to school;
• Removal of Christmas presents and other personal items;
• Calling children by numbers rather than names;
• Leaving youngsters hungry through inadequate food or alternately force feeding;
• Some people who contacted the inquiry claimed when they were ill they were forced to eat their own vomit;
• Inadequate staffing and supervision and lack of medical attention;
• Lack of contact with social workers – until the 1960s children were often sent to homes on the recommendation of doctors or clerics and the state was not involved in providing social care.
Ms Smith said allegations included sexual abuse by older children, visiting priests, employees and in one instance a nun.
A senior member of the order made a submission to the inquiry acknowledging that an individual sister or common staff member, having worked long hours with children from troubled backgrounds, may have lost her temper and acted inappropriately. She accepted there was scope for bullying because they could not keep eyes on all the children.
“The sisters always tried to provide the best care with the staff and resources available to them,” she added.
She said they had little information to give the inquiry about sexual assaults but were extremely upset about them.