Children’s homes were places of fear and abuse, inquiry finds

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Children were sexually abused, beaten and humiliated as they lived in a climate of fear and coercive control at an orphanage run by a religious order, an inquiry has found.

Youngsters were hit with implements such as leather straps, crucifixes and a dog’s lead at Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark, as well as at Bellevue House in Rutherglen, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) concluded.

Chair Lady Smith said being hit was “a normal aspect of daily life” for some children, and they found no love, compassion, dignity or comfort at the two institutions run by the nuns of the Catholic order the Daughters of Charity (DoC) of St Vincent de Paul.

The inquiry further reported that children were sexually abused at Smyllum.

“Children were sexually abused by priests, a trainee priest, Sisters, members of staff and a volunteer,” Lady Smith said.

Children at the homes also suffered punishments for wetting the bed, emotional abuse, force-feeding and abusive bathing routines, the inquiry said.

The findings are contained in the first interim report from the SCAI, which is examining historical allegations of the abuse of children in care and started public hearings in May 2017.

From the end of November last year, the inquiry heard evidence over 20 days from 54 witnesses about their experiences at Smyllum and Bellevue, which closed in 1981 and 1961, respectively. Some 21 written statements were also submitted to the probe.

Issuing her findings on the DoC case study, Lady Smith said: “To children, ‘home’ should mean a safe place where they know they will find unconditional loving care provided by adults they can trust; a place they will find light whenever life outside has grown dark; a place which does not fill them with fear; a place where they will not suffer abuse.

“The provision, by the order, of homes for the residential care of children in a way which routinely and consistently met that description would have been in keeping with their mission and with Christ’s teaching.

“Sadly, I have, in the light of the evidence, concluded that that did not happen. I find that children were abused in both Bellevue and Smyllum, the two institutions that were the main focus of the case study. The abuse which took place was physical, emotional and sexual.”

Determining that children were abused while in the care of the Daughters of Charity in Scotland, the report added: “For many children who were in Smyllum and Bellevue, the homes were places of fear, coercive control, threat, excessive discipline and emotional, physical and sexual abuse, where they found no love, no compassion, no dignity and no comfort.”

Children would be hit with or without implements, with the physical punishments meted out to them on a regular basis going “beyond what was acceptable at the time”.

Bed-wetters would be beaten, put in cold baths and humiliated in ways that included having to “wear” their wet sheets, the document noted.

Many children were also force-fed, with food sometimes pushed into their mouths when they were vomiting it back, the SCAI said.

Abusive bathing practices included queuing in a state of undress and sharing bathwater that was too hot or cold and dirty.

Lady Smith also found that children were emotionally abused in different ways, a “very cruel” method designed to hurt and belittle children.

“They were frequently humiliated, controlled and insulted, made to feel worthless, denigrated and subjected to punishments which were unjustified,” the report said.

“That emotional abuse is likely to have been exacerbated by the unavailability of family support in circumstances where siblings were routinely separated, where children were told that they did not have family any more and where there was no evidence of family visits being actively encouraged.”

Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry
Lady Smith found children suffered emotional and physical abuse (Nick Mailer/PA)

Lady Smith said she would take all the findings into account when she decides what recommendations to make within the final report.

Responding to the publication, a statement from Daughters of Charity said: “Lady Smith’s findings describe events and practices which are totally out of keeping with the fundamental values which underpin our life and mission, and we are committed to giving this report our utmost attention.

“We most sincerely offer our heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered any form of abuse whilst in our care.

“Our respectful desire for the future is to build appropriate relationships with INCAS and others, to effect healing in whatever ways are possible for this generation.”

The inquiry has cost £15.6 million so far and it has been given more time to complete its work.

A fresh phase public hearings beginning later this month will examine residential childcare establishments run by large-scale care providers.

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