A former Catholic bishop has said nuns at the centre of the UK’s largest ever public inquiry into institutional child abuse were taken for granted.
Edward Daly, 81, expressed admiration for a religious order caring for thousands of troubled children amid the violence and “abominable” poverty of 1960s Northern Ireland.
The Sisters of Nazareth have apologised for “shocking and harrowing” physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect at two residential homes in Londonderry.
Bishop Daly said in 36 years of ministry he only heard one complaint, from a woman separated from her brothers as a child and sent from a home to Australia, but had no involvement in running the centres.
He said: “They were doing work that needed to be done, that nobody else was doing.”
The treatment of young people, orphaned or taken away from their unmarried mothers, in houses run by nuns, brothers or the state, is a key concern of an investigation chaired by retired High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart which is being held in Banbridge, Co Down, and was ordered by the devolved government at Stormont.
It is considering cases between 1922, the foundation of Northern Ireland, and 1995.
Bishop Daly told the inquiry that Londonderry around the time of the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, was a place of great suffering.
“It was a culture shock, I had never before experienced poverty of that nature, housing was of such abominable standard, overcrowding and all the attendant things that went with that, it was quite shocking frankly.”
The former bishop said there was violence every day except Christmas Day for 18 months.
“It was extraordinary, the shootings, the murders, bombs, intimidation, imprisonment, internment.”
The nuns ran two homes in the area, Termonbacca and Nazareth House.
Earlier evidence to the inquiry said two sisters were left looking after up to 70 children amid under-funding and overcrowding.
Bishop Daly said: “We all took the sisters for granted. The sisters were there, we knew they (children) were being cared for.
“Perhaps people in the community, leaders in the community like myself, took them for granted.”
He added: “We are all responsible for not knowing but I was surprised that so few sisters were involved and they looked after 5,000 children.
“One wonders what would have happened to those kids had the sisters not been there.”
Responsibility for running the order lay in Hammersmith in London, answerable directly to Rome rather than his diocese, the senior cleric said.
Victims ‘forced to eat own vomit’
Alleged victims have claimed they were forced to eat their own vomit and punished for bedwetting.
A senior nun, speaking on behalf of the congregation, said the evidence was “shocking and harrowing”.
Sister Brenda McCall said: “We are a human group, a human organisation and we had people that were champions to the cause and we had people that were a bit weaker and all I can say is we had some wonderful, heroic, I would say inspirational sisters.” She said the congregation accepted that sisters, older boys and lay people physically assaulted children.