A Catholic religious order has accepted that a notorious paedophile priest abused children while they were in the care of nuns in Northern Ireland, a lawyer told a public inquiry.
Fr Brendan Smyth visited two south Belfast residential homes at the centre of the independent probe into wrongdoing stretching back decades. The serial molester was later convicted of dozens of child abuse charges.
More than 100 witnesses from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge have come forward to the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry, headed by a former judge, which is one of the largest investigations of its kind ever held in the UK.
Senior counsel to the inquiry Christine Smith QC said: “Sexual abuse of children was perpetrated by the now notorious Fr Brendan Smyth.”
She added: “There will be evidence given in this module that he abused children both in Nazareth House and in Nazareth Lodge in Belfast.”
Sister Brenda McCall, a senior figure in the Sisters of Nazareth order which ran the now closed Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge in south Belfast, gave a statement to the inquiry.
Ms Smith said: “She states that the congregation accepts that Brendan Smyth did abuse children while they were in our care and continued to abuse some after they left our care.
“She also accepts that he visited both Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge.”
Smyth was at the heart of one of the first paedophile priest scandals to envelope the Catholic Church on the island of Ireland.
The cleric was ultimately convicted of dozens of offences against children over a 40-year period.
Outside the hearing Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: “It has already been established that among the abusers was notorious serial paedophile Father Brendan Smyth, who was allowed to use both children’s homes as a personal playground for his depravity.
“It is clear that the abuse suffered by the children at these two Belfast homes represents a monumental failure by both religious and state institutions in Northern Ireland.”
Thirteen institutions are being considered by the inquiry panel headed by Sir Anthony Hart, which is tasked with making recommendations to Stormont ministers on issues such as compensating alleged victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect.
The Sisters of Nazareth have been subjected to stinging criticism from former residents at two homes they ran in Londonderry.
Despite evidence of relatively progressive conditions similar allegations have been repeated by those who lived in the two Belfast homes; Nazareth House which closed its doors in 2000 and Nazareth Lodge which stopped accepting children in 1998.
Some alleged they had been humiliated, punished for bed wetting, locked in cupboards and beaten daily.
In 1984 an investigation was launched after claims children were put in a room with dead cockroaches, food was received from a supermarket which was not acceptable to the general public and at Nazareth Lodge soap was allegedly broken up and put in a boy’s mouth so that he retched after swearing.
Ms Smith QC quoted one witness, saying: “The nuns were at best indifferent and most often sadistic bullies who spoke with harsh, loud voices in scornful, dismissive tones.”
She acknowledged the picture was mixed – another child missed the nuns and said they made sacrifices for the youngsters.
“I have taken a little time to go through the complaints because what they show is that there were allegations of inappropriate childcare practices in respect of the homes run by the congregations that span the entire time frame of this inquiry’s terms of reference right up to and including 1995.
“We have seen that not only through the testimony of former residents but now in these documents around records of the state authorities.
“The issue for the inquiry will be to determine what weight to put on these allegations and whether it is satisfied the children were continuing to suffer physical and emotional abuse of this type described right up to the end of the our terms of reference.
“If that is the conclusion arrived at a question then arises how, when the landscape of childcare in Northern Ireland had changed and the state had a much greater role of play in terms of involvement through social workers and inspectors from the (health) department, could this happen?
“Why did the systems fail?”
Ms Smith said one 11-year-old child in 1927 from Nazareth Lodge was found by police wandering barefoot around Belfast with marks on his legs claiming he had been beaten.
Police obtained doctors’ certificates detailing his injuries but later medical reports could find no trace of the alleged ill-treatment. The nuns denied inflicting serious injury.
Pondering prosecution the senior officer said: “I have no doubt that the evidence of the sisters and reverend mother would be believed before that of the boy.”
In 1953 Kathleen Forrest, a state health inspector, called for the system to be reformed after visiting the Belfast homes.
“I find these homes utterly depressing and it appalls me to find that these children are being reared in bleak lovelessness.
“I think we must press for a complete overhaul of the whole set up of these homes and assist them in every way possible.”
Later she visited Nazareth Lodge and said babies were well cared for and clothed and fed but schoolchildren were not getting any chance in life, knowing nothing but understaffed institutional care from babyhood.
Children were sitting with bare legs and feet waiting to wash before supper, being hissed at by an older boy to stay quiet.
“What is needed here is institutional reorganisation so that these little children can have some individual love and care rather than being dragooned.”
The first former residents give evidence at Banbridge courthouse on Tuesday.