Nazareth House Aberdeen “carer”, Sister Alphonso (pictured above) found herself in court, and convicted, of “cruel and unnatural treatment of children” because of a comment she made to a former victim 20 years after the abuse. This was that “I was young at the time and I was just following orders.” This so outraged the victim, she went to police.
Following the brave efforts of “Bobby” in outing the abuses at the Nazareth House in Wynnum (see yesterday’s posting), cases arose around the world. Nazareth House is the generic name of all orphanages operated by the Sisters of Nazareth Order, from the 1820s until the 1980s.
In the U.K. alone, complaints have come from victims at the Nazareth Houses in Cardonald, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Plymouth, Swansea, Manchester, Sunderland, Midlothian, Kilmarnock, Middlesbrough, Carlisle, Tyneside and Belfast. The facility at Christchurch in New Zealand is also under the cloud. While sexual abuses occurred, violence was the main complaint. It should be noted, all the same, that violence is often a way sexual abuses can be enabled, and covered up.
Media reports state that it is believed the Sisters will vigorously defend themselves in any court actions.
This is a wise strategy for them because the courts have been very kind to the good Sisters, at least in the U.K. They have demanded that victims prove the events were a concerted policy by the Order, and not just the actions of a few “rogue” nuns. Courts found this not to be proven adequately. This is in direct contraindication to the comment by Sister Alphonso, and the sheer number of Nazareth Houses with claims against them. Further, victims have stated that it was essentially ALL nuns who were involved in the abuses.
When Sister Alphonso had been found guilty of four charges, Sheriff Colin Harris ordered that several other charges be rejected and said that he would only admonish, rather than imprison, her because of her age and health.
When hundreds of victims launched a class action, the courts invoked the statute of limitations to defend the good Sisters. In 2000, victims had only three years after turning 18 to lodge claims, except under unusual circumstances, such as being forced not to make the claims, or not fully knowing of the abuse and its effects.
Judge Lord Drummond Young ruled that there were no exceptional circumstances. This was basically because the victims knew of the effects, such as having “nightmares” for a long time. Also, he ruled that no-one had forcibly constrained them from making claims. His view was upheld on appeal, although the victims’ lawyers have indicated that they will take the case to the European Union Human Rights Commission.
The good Lord Young did make some clarifying comments, for those not yet convinced where his sympathies lay. The judge said it would be “unfair” to make the nuns contest the actions which “could starve other homes for the elderly and AIDS hospices in Africa of much-needed funds.” Consequently, he said that “I will exercise my discretion in favour of the Poor Sisters. I reach this conclusion without hesitation”
He did (sort of) consider the victims when he intoned that “I cannot think that it is genuinely in the victims’ interests to rake over those memories, especially where the individual nuns that are said to have been responsible are either dead or elderly.” Yet the Order itself continues and prospers.
[Yesterday’s posting referred to their net worth as being over $300 million. It has since been pointed out that this is, claimed, to be their actual bank balance alone.]
Many reports have indicated strong support for the Sisters from the political and legal leadership in the U.K. For example, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, has publicly claimed that many convictions of people accused of abusing children in institutional care were flawed, and that the law on this was in need of review to better protect the alleged abusers.
Scotland’s Archbishop, Mario Conti, lent his support to the nay-sayers by stating that the former Nazareth House inmates were seekers, not of justice, but of “pots of gold”. One victim has claimed that he reported his sexual abuse long ago to the (then) Fr. Conti, but he did nothing other than to ask him to “pray for his abuser”. Conti, of course, denies this and claims he has never had a complaint from a victim in his time. To round things off, he accused the victim of being “unreliable”.
One of the most scandalous arguments accepted by the U.K. courts has been that the treatments of the victims was usual for the times. This does not, naturally, make it right, though. One may equally say that gassing Jews was “normal for the times”, and that the guards at Auschwitz were “only following orders”. The courts accepted the assertion by Sister Alphonso that, while admitting striking and force-feeding children, she did it at a time when corporal punishment of this kind was thought normal. She believed it was the correct way to discipline children. “It was the natural thing to do,” she said.
Get into the 21st. century, U.K. legal system!
What WAS normal was the ever-present violence and sexual abuse. As one of the Tyneside victims stated, “The violence in the orphanage didn’t seem exceptional, just part of life”. A Middlesborough victim similarly noted that the nuns “were like prison officers. The atmosphere was one of sheer terror”.
During her trial, Sister Alphonso really enraged her victims by claiming she loved the children. As one said, “”Looking back, I think they really despised the children. They were always calling us guttersnipes or scavengers and seemed to enjoy humiliating us. There was real hate there.”
Given what the legal establishment in the U.K. is prepared to accept, the Royal Commission should consider looking at the similar attitudes here, to see if the dice are being loaded against the victims. It should also look at Australian organisations in the context of how they have behaved in other countries.
The (formerly “Poor”) Sisters of Nazareth provides one of the few cases of child sexual abuse of children by female clergy. The Royal Commission needs to remove the blinkers and consider the possible existence of other cases.
Some academics have placed the Nazareth House abuses in a feminist context. For example, prominent feminist scholar, Ailbhe Smyth, writes that “Christianity tells us that we have to help the poor, but we don’t have to like them. It is a Christian duty, for your greater glory, not theirs. There is, in this context, an absence of any recognition that tenderness should be the norm in relations between adults and children.”
Read more here:
TOMORROW: Why judges should not head abuse enquiries
That’s all I can say
Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)