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...

Scottish Daily Mail - - TERROR ON THE TUBE - by Emma Cow­ing

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

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