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.”
Some Catholic nuns at a children’s home in Northern Ireland were sadistic bullies, a former resident has claimed.
A “bleak, harsh and cruel” atmosphere was described by alleged victims at two properties in Belfast run by the Sisters of Nazareth Order, a lawyer told a public inquiry.
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.
Thirteen institutions are being considered by the inquiry panel, which is tasked with making recommendations to Stormont ministers on issues such as compensating alleged victims.
Senior counsel to the inquiry Christine 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.”
Ms Smith said the picture was mixed – another child missed the nuns and said they made sacrifices for the youngsters.
But she added that paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth was active there.
“There will be evidence given in this module that he abused children both in Nazareth House and in Nazareth Lodge in Belfast.”
Ms Smith said 102 witnesses have come forward, and more than 90 are expected to give evidence.
The module surrounding Nazareth Lodge and Nazareth House will take more than 40 days, the single biggest in terms of the number of witnesses.
Homes runs by the Sisters in Derry and by the De La Salle order of religious brothers in Rubane House in Kircubbin, Co Down, have already been investigated and testimony taken from children sent by the institutions as migrants to Australia.
The inquiry was established to investigate child abuse in institutional homes in Northern Ireland over a 73-year period, up to 1995.
‘Bleak lovelessness’ at Care Homes
Catholic-run homes in Northern Ireland in the 1950s were centres of “bleak lovelessness”, an official at the time said.
Kathleen Forrest, a state health inspector, called for the system to be reformed after visiting the Belfast Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge homes runs by the Sisters of Nazareth.
Counsel to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Christine Smith QC quoted from her 1953 report, saying: “I find these homes utterly depressing and it appals 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, 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.”
Ms Smith also recounted the case of one 11-year-old child in 1927 from Nazareth Lodge who was found by police wandering barefoot around Belfast on a cold May morning with marks on his legs and claimed he had been beaten.
Police obtained a doctor’s certificate 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.”
Amnesty International warns hearing set to be “one of the darkest chapters”
Amnesty International warned that the latest hearing in the historic institutional abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland which got underway today will be one of the darkest chapters in the ongoing investigation.
The comments were made from the Banbridge Courthouse where the inquiry started hearings into allegations of abuse at the Nazareth Lodge and Nazareth House children’s homes, operated by the Sisters of Nazareth religious congregation.
Speaking from the Banbridge Courthouse in Belfast, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, said:
“It is clear from the opening statements of the counsel that this phase of the inquiry will be one of the darkest chapters.
“The inquiry will hear from over 100 witnesses of a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse suffered by children of all ages in both children’s homes.
“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.
“We hope the inquiry will continue to give voice to the experiences of those who suffered as children in these homes.
“The process must deliver not only public acknowledgement of the suffering, but also justice and redress.”