Savage abuse in a ‘hellish’ regime
It should have been a place of Christian charity. But behind the grim walls of the Smyllum Park Orphanage, a hellish 120-year-old regime meted out savage abuse. In the ‘care’ of its sadistic Sisters, one child died every 12 weeks...
IT IS a quiet corner of the cemetery, past the pristine rows of carefully tended graves and crosses. Here the grass is overgrown, the surrounding shrubbery unkempt and forlorn. Yet deep within the soil of this remote patch of Lanarkshire graveyard lies one of Scotland’s darkest secrets.
Investigators say this is the final resting place of more than 400 children, a mass grave where bodies were dumped, possibly over decades. It is a shocking allegation, the latest, horrifying chapter in the dark history of Smyllum Park Orphanage, a large foreboding structure run by Catholic nuns which, for almost 120 years, took in abandoned children from Lanark and surrounding areas.
Smyllum was meant to be a refuge, a place of safety and comfort for the thousands of children who arrived there between 1864 and 1981, hungry and lacking clothes. Many were children whose parents had died. Others were sent there because their families could no longer cope. Yet for decades former residents have spoken of the abuse: of cold-eyed nuns wielding sticks and belts, of beatings and psychological cruelty, and of the children who simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
In 2003, the order of nuns that ran the orphanage, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, admitted more than 100 children had been buried in St Mary’s Cemetery in Lanark in unmarked graves.
Now, following the launch of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, evidence has emerged that more than four times as many children may have been buried there – not in unmarked graves but in one, solitary grave.
Smyllum survivor George Quinn told a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary on the scandal: ‘I feel so sad for the children. The lives they had. There was no affection, no compassion and there was certainly no love for those children.’
Relatives of children who died at Smyllum are calling for an investigation of the land using ground-penetrating radar, in hopes of establishing just how many bodies are buried there. In the meantime, there are questions. How many children died at Smyllum? What happened to them after their deaths? And why did those in charge refuse to tell the truth?
UNTIL the day Frank Docherty died in April of this year, he remembered the face of the nun who tortured him as a little boy. It wasn’t just the beatings, he said, it was the way she relished the attack: ‘The horrifying thing was that being hurt by implements was bad enough, but to see a holy person, a righteous person with – I don’t want to exaggerate – a face full of hate, an angelic, holy face turning into a face of horror, a woman crunching her teeth in hate, going berserk, screaming while you are pleading for mercy, the wee leather boots just booting into you... Bruises go away, but the horror stays in your mind.’
Mr Docherty dedicated the last 20 years of his life to uncovering the abuse at Smyllum. Sent to the orphanage at the age of nine after his alcoholic parents could no longer look after him, he endured beatings and psychological torture that led to a lifetime of anger and distress. He recalls how, on his first day, a nun reacted to his crying by hitting him with a hairbrush and repeatedly kicking him.
Speaking in 2001, he said: ‘Many professionals have tried to help us. But often our problems are so complicated, our scars so deep, the only ones who truly understand our pain are those who have suffered themselves.’
It was this pain which prompted Mr Docherty that same year to set up his own organisation, In Care Abuse Survivors (INCAS), a group dedicated to supporting the survivors of child abuse while in care, and campaigning for justice for the distress they suffered. It has proved highly influential in bringing pressure on the Scottish Government to launch the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, which started in June of this year and has already heard evidence from the order of nuns that ran Smyllum, as well as posthumous testimony from Mr Docherty himself.
The order has always denied any abuse, something that has frustrated survivors. During the first phase of the inquiry in June, Sister Ellen Flynn, leader of the order in Britain, was asked about alleged abuse at the home and claimed the allegations were a ‘mystery’. But when asked by chairman Lady Smith if the order had considered the abuse claims might be ‘wellfounded’, she replied: ‘There’s always a possibility.’
Yet she maintained there was nothing to back up the allegations: ‘In our records, we can confirm no evidence has been found that substantiates any of the allegations. We accept accusations have been made, and we are appalled something like that may have been acceptable, and very sorry, but we cannot confirm there was abuse.’
Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell, who apologised to victims of care home abuse in 2004 on behalf of the Scottish Government and has met with several Smyllum survivors, says the lack of contrition, and a refusal to face up to the truth, has proved frustrating.
‘The abuse itself was horrific but the constant denial to the victims must have been torture,’ he said. ‘For them to find the courage to come forward and constantly be told they were exaggerating or not telling the truth in some way, or were being disloyal talking about this, must have been torture over several decades.
THE victims have led difficult lives. They deserve truth and justice. The culture of denial and cover-up has gone on far too long, and I strongly urge everybody, particularly those in the religious orders, to be open and honest with the inquiry and to face the truth.’
In 2003, INCAS pressured the order into an admission that 120 children who died there had been buried in 158 unmarked graves at St Mary’s Cemetery. Shocking as this was, many believed there were hundreds more. Yet records have proved hard to track down. According to Mr Docherty’s widow Janet, the order would say they were ‘destroyed by fire’ or ‘a ‘leak’, or lost when moving premises.
This year, following an investigation carried out by the BBC and the Sunday Post, documents uncovered by the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives revealed that in fact hundreds of children died at Smyllum – on average, one every three months.
Records show that a total of 402 babies, toddlers and children died there between 1864 and 1981. When those numbers were checked against burial records, it emerged that no records existed. There were officially no graves, no markers, no headstones or memorials. The children – most of whom are recorded as having died of illnesses
such as pneumonia, TB, and bronchopneumonia – had simply vanished. It is believed they were simply dumped in the mass grave at St Mary’s cemetery.
Lord McConnell says: ‘The problem is, there has been such a culture of denial and cover-up that, while I was horrified by what was discovered regarding the mass grave, I’m afraid I wasn’t shocked. And that really says it all.’
Eddie McColl, now 73, believes his brother may have been one of those buried in the grave. Eddie arrived at Smyllum Park in the late 1940s with his four siblings after his father died and his mother, raising five children on her own, felt unable to cope.
‘It was hell. Hell,’ he recalls. ‘You were getting punished all the time for the slightest thing. At the time when we were in there, we were thinking that was happening to every child – it was just normal.’ Young Eddie would routinely be hit across the knuckles with sticks and smacked on the back of the knees with a big leather belt. Even now, more than 60 years later, he can see the nun who delivered the punishments with her cane and belt hanging by her side. It is an image that can still reduce him to tears.
‘I feel as though I lost my youth, my childhood,’ he told a BBC documentary. ‘I feel as if I never had a childhood.’
Mr McColl left the home at the age of 15 but would return to see his youngest brother Francis. ‘I used to visit him but usually had to be sneaked in to see him. The nuns didn’t like family visiting for some reason. One day I got a phone call from the nuns saying: “Francis is in hospital after an accident.”
‘But they wouldn’t give me any more information, or say where he was. After a month I went back to visit him, and was told he’d passed away – but no one had told me. It made me sick to my stomach.’
ONLY recently, Mr McColl learned that his brother died at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary in August 1961 from an ‘accidental’ left extrapleural haemorrhage. Many other former residents have told him that Francis had been hit on the head with a golf club.
Survivors talk of children simply disappearing after a beating, never to be seen again. Mr Docherty could never recall attending a Requiem Mass for any of the orphans. Yet he did remember being forced once to kiss the head of a dead nun before a mass and burial at St Mary’s Cemetery. ‘The problem is that nobody knows exactly what happened there for sure,’ says Lord McConnell. ‘Certainly there are records that will never be recovered and records that have been destroyed as part of a cover-up. But I hope the inquiry will be able to piece together a picture and identify those responsible for both the abuse, and the cover-up.’
In a statement this week, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul said: ‘We are core participants in the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry and are co-operating fully with that inquiry.
‘We remain of the view that this inquiry is the most appropriate forum for such investigations. Given the ongoing work of the inquiry, we do not wish to provide any interviews.
‘We wish to again make clear that, as Daughters of Charity, our values are totally against any form of abuse and thus, we offer our most sincere and heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered any form of abuse whilst in our care.’
Back at St Mary’s cemetery, the rows of perfectly manicured graves for the nuns who worked at Smyllum are clean and cared for, with inscriptions marking the dates of their deaths. Close to where the suspected mass grave lies there is now a memorial, erected in 2004 after the admission that children had been buried there in unmarked graves.
Its message is simple, and unbearably poignant: ‘Their lives were so short, no world to roam, taken so young, they never went home. So spare a thought of them as you pass this way, a prayer if you remember day by day.’
Now, finally, as the true horror of their fate is uncovered, they will at last be remembered.
Seeking truth: Frank Docherty, left, and Eddie McColl, who survived the regime at Smyllum Park, below. Top: Orphaned servant Louise Langlois, back row, fifth from left, in 1944, shortly before she died