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Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse - Extract from Volume 2, Chapter 6 - The Sisters of Mercy [re Apologies by Sisters in 1996 and 2004]

Response to allegations of abuse

6.68During the Investigation Committee’s Emergence hearings, Sr Breege O’Neill, then Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy, outlined the response of the Congregation to the issue of child abuse in Ireland.

6.69The emergence of widespread allegations of abuse in the early 1990s coincided with the centralisation or amalgamation of the Congregation. The Congregation had just formed at national level in 1994, and the intermediate provincial structures had not yet been established. This made it difficult, she said, for the Congregation to determine precisely what had happened. Sr O’Neill stated:

I suppose one of the reasons I outlined our structure in the beginning was because when the allegations that concerned our congregation became known to us in the mid 90s we did not have central archives. We had just amalgamated at national level in 1994 and our intermediate structures, which were the provincial structures, were not in place. So one of the difficulties for us in responding to the allegations at the beginning was that the information we needed to get the picture ourselves of just what happened in the institutions and what was known of life there, that information was spread around the country.

6.70The records of institutions that had closed in the 1960s had been transferred to local convents, some of which were autonomous and others were branch houses of larger convents. Some records had been transferred to the mother house of the newly formed Diocesan Congregations. In 1996, the Sisters decided to collect what records there were and assemble them in a central archive. To that end, they employed a professional archivist and established the archive at the Congregation’s premises in Baggot Street. The records which had survived the closure of some of the schools and convents, and the process of amalgamation, were in some areas quite sparse. This made it difficult for the Leadership to develop an awareness of what had happened or to respond to the increasing number of requests for information from former residents of institutions run by the Congregation. Sr O’Neill stated that the records were:

as complete as we have been able to find of record of any institution for which we were responsible as far as back as we have been able to find records for. So everything from attics to whatever little pieces of paper were available, we have done an immense trawl of every house to ensure that in some way the whole picture is contained in one place.

6.71The records consist of:

Any records that were kept in any industrial school and I think they cover things like admission registers I have to make a note of these so I will remember them - discharge books, books of incidental returns, manager’s diaries, medical officer reports, punishment books, maintenance books. Any correspondence that has survived from the institutions. Medical history forms, general case notes, birth certificates, detention orders. They vary. I am not saying that we have all of that information for any one institution, but the archives comprise all of that information in relation to at least some of the institutions and in varying degrees in relation to them all ... Depending on when the industrial school in a particular locality closed and what happened to the building, or even what happened to the convent building in the subsequent years to the 90s also determined what information has survived.

6.72The Sisters of Mercy became aware of allegations of abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sr O’Neill stated:

It was at that time that we became aware of the pain that some people who had been in our institutions were still carrying in their adult life as a result of their time there. That we became aware of mainly through the public domain. Through books that had been published. I refer to the book "The God Squad" in the late 80s and "You May Talk Now" by Mary Phil Drennan. They were people whose stories related to institutions that were run by our Congregation.

6.73Ms Christine Buckley had made serious allegations of abuse arising out of her time in Goldenbridge on the Gay Byrne radio programme on 8th November 1992, but it was the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme in February 1996 that represented a turning point for the Congregation. Although earlier books had been published and interviews broadcast, they were relevant only to particular convents or Diocesan Congregations, whereas the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme was the first to confront the Congregation as a whole:

It actually was the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme in 1996. Because earlier those two books would have probably come to the attention of the particular convent connected to the orphanage in which their experiences were recounted but in 1996 we had come together as a Congregation and the impact of the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme on us is hard to describe really because the impact of the story and of the coverage in the media following that, it was like a tidal wave that came over us for which we were not prepared either structurally or in terms of how we understood the past at that time.

6.74The programme had an enormous impact on the way that the Congregation viewed itself:

The impact was enormous on the Congregation. One of the reasons was because we had held a particular picture ourselves of our involvement in the care of children and that particular programme certainly shattered all of that. We had within the Congregation many, many Sisters who had no experience of industrial schools. They wouldn’t have ever been attached to a convent where there was an industrial school. They were never involved in them themselves. They wouldn’t have them in their memory. Suddenly there were all of these allegations coming to us and we really didn’t know how to deal with them at the time. I think we went through the shock and denial and that whole sense of could this be true ... We didn’t have a base of knowledge ourselves to check it out against. So our initial response was that kind of dismay. Huge hurt within the Congregation for the people who were coming forward with their stories. All of that had a huge impact on the morale of the Congregation. I say that because it was in an effort to try to create some understanding of that, that we engaged in the process I spoke about earlier, that kind of self-reflection process around how could this have happened? How did we contribute to creating situations where this could have happened? It was a very painful time. Then we had Sisters within the Congregation who were extremely pained by somehow now seeing their life’s work being cast in a totally different light. These would be the very elderly Sisters. That was very difficult for them.

6.75Sr O’Neill stated that there was enormous pressure on the Leadership Team at the time:

... it was the tension of holding all of those pieces and trying to support everybody involved at that time. I am talking particularly in the years ’96, ’97, ’98.

6.76The Sisters of Mercy were aware of ‘Dear Daughter’ before it was aired. When it was being made, the Congregation commissioned Mr Gerard Crowley, a childcare specialist, to carry out an investigation into Goldenbridge Industrial School, in an effort to provide the Congregation with an independent view of what happened there, and to give the Congregation some assistance in deciding how to respond to the allegations that were being made. Mr Crowley’s report is considered in detail in the chapter on Goldenbridge: for present purposes, it is sufficient to note that it reached a preliminary view that the allegations were broadly credible. In her evidence to the Investigation Committee in the Phase I hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue stated:

The approach gave us, if you like, some understanding initially of how we might view our situation at the time and we out of that made our apology. We took the main conclusions from it that the regime was harsh and insensitive to the needs of children, that it was inadequate and did not meet their basic needs.

6.77Following ‘Dear Daughter’, the Sisters announced the setting-up of a helpline and a counselling service. Also, in an effort to build up its level of understanding, the Leadership met with every Sister in Ireland who had worked in childcare. It also met with every Community which had had an industrial school attached to it in the past:

We learnt a number of things. We learnt that their understanding of their time spent in childcare in these industrial schools, their understanding was that they had done well under very difficult circumstances ... They would acknowledge that the atmosphere in those institutions was certainly not conducive or helpful to addressing the emotional needs of children. They talked about the lack of funding. They talked about the lack of resources in terms of help. They talked about an ... institutional sort of daily set up that wasn’t conducive to either attending to children’s individual emotional needs ... Or to developing to the degree that they would now want with the individuality of children. They would recognise there was harshness ... But they wouldn’t accept the more serious allegations that have been made against them.

6.78Sr Breege O’Neill stated that the relationship that individual Sisters had with former residents might have clouded their view or led to a ‘rose-tinted’ picture of what life was like in the industrial schools:

... what complicates the whole piece for us is that those Sisters continued to have ongoing contact and friendly relationships with many who were in our institutions and who to this day come back and they visit. They stay for weekends in the summertime in those Communities. So in some way that sort of tradition maybe informed our picture of what we thought the relationship was. People would attend weddings and christenings of children and all of that, and letters would be exchanged. I suppose one of the things we learnt from going around talking to the Sisters was the huge affection they have for those who were children in the institutions and with whom they have that ongoing contact. We try to hold that side by side with the huge pain that many people who were in our institutions speak about. That has been a real dilemma and tension point for us as a Congregation.

6.79In addition to these interviews, the Congregation:

... engaged ... in a very intense process of reflection throughout the whole Congregation. Just trying to understand what structures of ours brought about a situation where the stories that were emerging in the 90s could have happened. We have enlisted the help of historians and psychologist, theologians to help us with that reflection. To try to understand the context of the time, but also our own structures and anything within those that might have led to that.

6.80After the broadcast of ‘Dear Daughter’, the Sisters of Mercy issued their first public apology, in February 1996. This stated:

In the light of recent revelations regarding the mistreatment of children in our institutions we the Mercy Sisters wish to take this opportunity to sincerely and unreservedly express our deep regret to those men and women who at any time or place in our care were hurt or harshly treated. The fact that most complaints relate to many years ago is not offered as an excuse. As a Congregation we fully acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness.
Aware of the painful and lasting effect of such experiences we would like to hear from those who have suffered and we are putting in place an independent and confidential help line. This help line will be staffed by competent and professional counsellors who will listen sympathetically and who will be in the position to offer further help if required. In this way we would hope to redress the pain insofar as that is possible so that those who have suffered might experience some peace, healing and dignity.
Life in Ireland in the 40s and 50s was in general harsh for many people. This was reflected in orphanages, which were under funded, under staffed and under resourced. It was in this climate that many Sisters gave years of generous service to the education and care of children. However, we made mistakes and irrespective of the passage of time as a Congregation we now openly acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness.
Regretfully we cannot change the past. As we continue our work of caring and education today we will constantly review and monitor our procedures, our personnel and our facilities. Working in close cooperation with other voluntary and statutory agencies we are committed to doing all in our power to ensure that people in our care have a protective and supportive environment.
We were founded to alleviate pain, want and misery. We have tried to do this through our work in health care, education, child care, social and pastoral work. Despite our evident failures which we deeply regret we are committed to continuing that work in partnership with many others in the years ahead.

6.81Sr O’Neill described the Congregation’s thinking and objective in publishing that apology as follows:

Our hope was that it would ease the pain and trauma of the many people who had been former residents in our institutions, and that it might help to restore the relationship between them and the congregation. Because at that early stage the breaking of that relationship was hugely painful for the Sisters who worked in the industrial schools and for the wider Congregation. We thought that if people could hear that we were truly sorry that might help to restore the relationship. That was the intention at the time.

6.82However, the Sisters concluded that the apology was not successful:

I don’t think it was successful. Because as time went on we learnt that people heard that apology as conditional. They heard it as incomplete. It didn’t seem to have the intent that we had thought it would. Or what we had hoped would happen didn’t happen at that time as a result of that apology. In some ways I think people who heard it as conditional were more hurt by that sense that we were not listening to them in the present.

6.83The Sisters considered that the initiation of legal proceedings against the Congregation altered the way that they sought to engage with former residents:

Shortly after that began the issuing of litigation. Many litigation cases against us as a Congregation by former residents. That sort of changed the relationship and put its own sort of limitations on our ability to continue to try to connect with our former residents. We respected the right of people to take court proceedings against us and we did not want to influence them in any way in doing that.

6.84The Congregation also highlighted other tensions:

One tension has been, the one I mentioned earlier, where we have Sisters who would acknowledge some but not all of the allegations against them, and who because of the way the Commission was set up would be or could be named as abusers at its conclusion we had a responsibility to provide those Sisters with all of the legal and other supports they needed, and to have testimonies tested. That was also a tension for us, because all of those processes in some way were creating more of a wedge in the relationship between us and them. That is how it was for us.

6.85The Congregation decided to publish a second apology, which it did on 5th May 2004. Sr O’Neill informed the Committee why it decided to do this:

When Justice Laffoy resigned and the Commission went into abeyance for some time and we began to think that the Commission was going to probably go on for a number of years, and certainly the High Court litigation cases would go on for years and we just at that point said we have got to do something to try in the short term to reach out to the people whose lives were still damaged by their experiences and see if there was any way we could begin to build a process of reconciliation. That was the reason we issued the second apology. Because we began with one to one contact with individual former residents or with representatives of former residents groups and the feedback was that apology was just so unhelpful to them, that original one. They would have told us that their ability to get on with their lives was in some way blocked by our inability to hear them.
When that awareness became clear to us we decided to one more time and this time to try to find the words that would reflect our desire to indicate that that apology was unconditional and unreserved. That was the second apology we issued with that intent.

6.86The second apology was as follows:

On behalf of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy we the central leadership team wish to say to all those who as children lived in our orphanages and industrial schools we accept unreservedly that many of you who spent your childhoods in orphanages and industrial schools run by our congregation were hurt and damaged while in our care. We believe that you suffered physical and emotional trauma.
We have in the past publicly apologised to you. We know that you heard our apology then as conditional and less than complete. Now without reservation we apologise unconditionally to each one of you for the suffering we have caused. We express our heartfelt sorrow and ask your forgiveness. We ask forgiveness for our failure to care for you and to protect you in the past, and for our failure to hear you in the present.
We are distressed by our failures. We have been earnestly searching to find a way to bring about healing and we need your help to do this. We recognise that this statement may be considered too little too late. We make it in the hope that it will be a further step in the long process of healing the pain that we as a Congregation have caused.
Finally, we failed those Sisters in our Congregation whom we put in the situation of caring for you without adequate supports or resources. For that too we apologise and take responsibility.

6.87In her evidence on behalf of the Congregation at the commencement of the hearings into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue discussed the negative aspects of the industrial school system and of Goldenbridge in particular. She stated:

The most basic features of the industrial school illustrate how children almost inevitably suffered in this system. The large size of the Institution and the number of children contained in it compared with small group units that we have today. Goldenbridge housed up to 185 children at any one time during the period under review. The size gave little prospect that the replication of love and nurture of family could occur within its walls. Nowadays, children taken into residential care live in homes of groups of six to eight at the maximum.
A second basic feature was really the ratio of staff to children within the Institution and as far as we can ascertain there appears to have been approximately one member of staff, and I include that to be either a teacher or a carer, one member of staff to about 30 or more children around the clock.
Thirdly, the absence of training for sisters and lay staff in the sense of what now would be called childcare training. Some Sisters, particularly those in charge, were trained as teachers; however, no formal childcare training had existed in Ireland until the late 60s and early 70s. Then the capitation system of funding, together with the level of funding, led to difficult financial constraints and choices.

6.88She also accepted that the institutional nature of the residential setting led, in turn, to other undesirable conditions of daily life. She described these as follows:

The regimental nature of the Institution where there was restriction on freedom of movement well beyond school hours, where the lack of privacy inherent in institutional life was something, particularly in the early years, which would have been unhappy. The emphasis on conformity rather than on creativity and choice, and the very limited opportunities of forming personal one to one adult/child relationships, and I suppose in particular the reliance on corporal punishment as a feature in the maintenance of discipline and good order.

6.89She also mentioned:

A failure to properly understand the level of trauma being suffered by each children as a result of being placed in the School and separated from family, sometimes in circumstances where this placement followed a death of a parent.
A failure to properly respond to the individual emotional needs of the children in a school, including how lonely and frightened they must have been in being taken from family and placed in a large institution with children of all ages.
A failure to recognise the special emotional and educational needs of children who had come from troubled backgrounds.
A failure to keep children informed about their families and family events, such as births, marriages, and deaths.
A failure to assess the individual needs of each child, either on admission or on an ongoing basis.
A failure to meet the comprehensive educational needs of children and the very inadequacy of the educational process itself relative to their needs.

6.90She pointed out that these failures were common to all industrial schools, but accepted that:

It does raise, if you like, a deep question for us as a Congregation and Sisters of Mercy just that we as agents of the State worked through this system and perhaps were not alert to the ways in which the failures contributed to the very real pain that has been experienced by children who were in industrial schools.

6.91These further concessions as to the negative aspects of institutional life are relevant in the investigations into the different schools, not only those run by the Sisters of Mercy. They are also material to the assessment of the system as a whole. The question has to be considered whether, and to what extent, detention in an industrial school meant that a child was doomed to suffer ill-treatment or neglect amounting to abuse of some kind. Whatever the answers to those questions, it does seem that Sr Bianca’s lecture in 1953 touched on many of the issues identified by the Sisters in their list of negative features, and contained advice on how to remedy them. At least some of the negative features mentioned could have been dealt with by the approach proposed by Sr Bianca, which stressed the need for individual care and sympathetic treatment. The same can be said about the comments and recommendations made by the Cussen Commission.

6.92Speaking for the Congregation on the more specific issue of whether abuse occurred in their schools, Sr Breege O’Neill in her evidence during the Emergence hearings said that individual Sisters ‘wouldn’t accept the more serious allegations that have been made against them’.

6.93Sr Breege stated that the records available to the Congregation did not provide any evidence of ‘ongoing systematic physical ... abuse of children.

6.94In her evidence at the commencement of the Goldenbridge investigation (Phase I), Sr Helena O’Donoghue was asked what her position was in relation to allegations of physical abuse. She stated:

It will be a matter for the Commission to really in some way examine elements of that nature which at this distance we are not in a position to be able to say definitively that they happened or didn’t happen. What we will be saying is that corporal punishment which was of the very severe and very cruel nature is denied by the Sisters who are accused of it ... Severe beatings are a matter that we would be having a different view on than is shared by many of the complainants and we would be looking to the Commission to determine on something which is very, very difficult to determine, but those who are alive and who are present at the time vehemently deny that they ever used punishment to the degree that was cruel and excessively abusive.

6.95In their Submissions to the Investigation Committee at the conclusion of the private hearings into Goldenbridge, the Sisters of Mercy stated that:

Corporal punishment was routine ... But ... we say that there has not been established that there was:—

(a) Serious or extreme violence, whether leading to children’s deaths or not;
(b) Daily unjustified physical abuse; ...

6.96During her evidence to the Committee at the Phase III hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr O’Donoghue stated:

At the Phase I hearing I said very clearly that we were not in a position to accept as factually correct the allegations of serious physical abuse or injury to any child. And that would cover those points.

6.97She continued that, having attended all of the private hearings, she would be of the same view:

Yes, we would, following the hearings we would be of the same view.

6.98Having given that evidence, Sr O’Donoghue was asked why the Sisters had apologised. She replied:

I think that, perhaps, an examination of the apology, both apologies, may be revealing in some way. I think that we have always acknowledged that we recognise that children suffered pain and hurt while in our institutions. We know that those institutions, as any other institutions, were systems. We regret deeply that suffering continued for the children through the years that they were there. We deeply do feel that and want in some way to both acknowledge and to work, as I have already said, for some kind of recovery.
Where specific allegations of a serious nature have been made, the apology couldn’t, until these matters would be completed, specify what the outcome of specific allegations were. In relation to Goldenbridge, our conviction is that, like anywhere else, children would have suffered in Goldenbridge pain and hurt one way or another that was not adverted to. At the same time we have seen and believe that there is ample evidence to say that the Institution was a reasonably effective and caring institution, according to the standards of the time.

6.99Sr O’Donoghue was referred to the portion of the apology which dealt with hurt and damage, and she was asked what caused the children hurt or damage. She replied:

I believe that I couldn’t summarise that in a sentence, it is a very complex situation. But there were large numbers, there was lack of understanding, there was a regimental way of life, there was corporal punishment, and factors like that which would have been unfriendly, to put it at its mildest, to the needs of children who were hurt already and who had experienced loss.

6.100Later she stated:

We certainly accept that corporal punishment was part and parcel of the life and was routine. We don’t know and can’t be definite about it, but that it may not have been reserved to the Manager only. But we do not accept that there was punishment that would have led to any kind of serious, or that was serious and caused injury.

6.101During the Phase I hearing into Dundalk, Sr Ann-Marie McQuaid was asked to comment generally on the complaints, by former residents of the School, that certain lay members of staff and some nuns did treat them harshly. She stated:

I suppose knowing human nature and knowing the length of the period of time and the number of children I think it would be unrealistic to say that there weren’t times when a child could have been treated harshly. We deeply regret it if we caused it and we deeply regret it if we didn’t notice it.

6.102She described the Congregation’s general attitude to the issue of corporal punishment as follows:

In hindsight we regret that and that’s what I would have had said. We deeply regret it, particularly with children who were vulnerable and who were carrying so much inner pain themselves, it made life more difficult for them.

6.103During the Phase I hearing into Clifden, Sr Margaret Casey stated:

Again I would wish to say that corporal punishment as a practice is something that we would deeply regret and the individual Sisters who administered it would have deep regrets because we do realise and recognise that these children were vulnerable children and in that particular setting it was particularly hard on them because of their vulnerability.

6.104At the Phase III hearing into Clifden, Sr Casey stated:

I am aware that there is again a direct conflict of evidence in the whole area of corporal punishment and in due course the Commission will no doubt adjudicate on that. I do acknowledge and have acknowledged that corporal punishment was a feature in the school life, as it was in most primary schools in the 1960s, and that slapping was the primary form of punishment and I did acknowledge and apologise if children were hurt or damaged by excessive use of corporal punishment while in Clifden.

6.105During the Phase III hearing into Newtownforbes, Sr Casey stated:

I can’t say that the children were slapped every morning for bed-wetting because I don’t know that, I wasn’t there at the time, I did inquire and the Sister who was there is in her 90’s and wasn’t able to furnish me with any information to help me in an understanding of how often is the punishment or how severe, so I honestly don’t know. All I know is that and they would have acknowledged that in the School, that there was punishment for bed-wetting but the extent of it, the regularity of it, the severity of it, I don’t know.