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Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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Allegations of sexual abuse in the 1970s


He continued: I said to you her, I said I have had a bad complaint, and she said – well bad complaints to her would be a daily thing, she would have to hear it first before she’d agree it was bad. So I said to her I have a report that there is a boy being molested, and she just took a step back and said, [Patrick] you can, as sure as you are standing there, that’s not the word she used, it doesn’t happen. They have a habit of – or there is a history there of boys and girls making up stories to gain attention. I said is that the way it is? She said that’s the way it is. So I said thanks very much, and I went back to the person, the young girl I spoke to earlier on and said nothing is going to be done, it is not going do be followed through, because we know now there was reason to follow it through.


He said that, after speaking with Sr Wilma, he was satisfied that nothing further would be done about the complaint: No, she made it plain to me that nothing was going on. So I respected her a great deal, I have to say that at that stage, and I was happy that what she was saying was exactly how things were, that there was nothing going on. It was only when evidence came up later that I was annoyed that I didn’t do more


He came forward in 1995 and made a formal statement to the Gardaí in relation to this when he read the revelations about abuse in the newspapers.


Sr Wilma told the Committee that she only knew Peter Tade to see around the grounds of St Joseph’s. She remembered Donal Kavanagh, as she knew him from around Kilkenny and she knew his family. She recalled Donal Kavanagh complaining to her that Peter Tade was physically abusing the children. He did this in the context of speaking to her about doing the childcare course and, in the course of that discussion, he mentioned that Peter Tade slapped the children. She remembered telling him that he should go to Sr Astrid about it.


In her interview with the Gardaí in December 1995, she stated: ‘I picked up on it that he might have been sexually abusing them as well’. In her evidence to the Commission, Sr Wilma corrected that statement. She said she made a mistake in her Garda statement, and that she could not possibly have known about sexual abuse back in 1970 when Donal Kavanagh spoke to her. She did know about incest and men interfering with girls, but she knew nothing about men interfering with boys. She also suggested in her evidence that her statement to the Gardaí was somewhat informal, and not as formal as the signed document would suggest. It took place in her solicitor’s office.


She said she did not personally arrange for Mr Kavanagh to see the Bishop, but found out later that he did see him. Her action was to tell him to talk to Sr Astrid about the complaint, and she would have taken no further action in regard to the matter. As far as she was concerned, Sr Astrid was in charge of the matter and would have been dealing with it properly.


Sr Wilma told the Committee that, back in the 1970s, if she was told that an adult was molesting a child, she would not have interpreted that as meaning some kind of inappropriate activity. Patrick McGovern gave evidence that he complained to her that one of the boys was being molested by a care worker. She had no recollection of it at all. Patrick McGovern said that her response was to dismiss it as not having happened. She said that, even if she had been told, she would have done nothing more that tell them to go to the person in charge of the Institution.


She said in response to questioning that she did not find it at all extraordinary that, when Peter Tade was sacked for interfering with a boy who was visiting the School, it was not discussed among the Sisters in the Community. It was the business of people in residential care and ‘we did not discuss our works, we simply didn’t’.


She continued: it wasn’t extraordinary at that time, it wasn’t extraordinary that I did not know about Peter Tade. It wasn’t extraordinary at all. It was normal. When it came to our works and this was about work, this was about Sr Astrid area of work. When it came to our works I may as well have been living in Kerry as living in St Joseph’s. That’s reality.


Despite running the childcare course in residential care in Kilkenny, she was living with a residential institution on her doorstep, and she knew nothing about what was going on inside it. Sr Wilma attended a number of meetings with Bishop Birch and the Department of Education. She also signed a report on proposed changes about to take place in St Joseph’s. She acknowledged that a newspaper article written by her in 1999, which asserted that she had nothing whatsoever to do with St Joseph’s, was not entirely accurate.

Other allegations of abuse


In the course of the Garda investigation in 1995, a female care worker admitted to sexually assaulting a number of boys in the School by taking them into her bed and fondling them. She said she was 16 years old at the time and was unaware that what she was doing was wrong. The boys were seven or eight at the time. Once she got older, she realised that this was wrong.


Sr Astrid recalled another bizarre incident. Some time around 1966 or 1967, young deacons from St Kieran’s College came to St Joseph’s to help with the children. A year or two later, towards the end of the 1960s, some of these students came to Summerhill to supervise the boys at night time. She was told that the students, she believed there were four involved, and the boys in Summerhill were running around naked. She did not see it herself but told the Garda about it. He reported it to the President of St Kieran’s, who in turn informed the Dean of Students. She said that she herself spoke to the President of the college about the incident, and the students did not return to St Joseph’s after that. She did not mention this incident to anyone and none of the children made any complaints. Sr Astrid commented that, although she did not think that there was any question of sexual abuse in this incident, she was sufficiently worried to speak to the Garda and to discuss it with the President of the College: But I didn’t, you see the trouble with me was I didn’t know about sexual abuse, you see. That was the trouble with me.


She did not agree that she buried her head in the sand on this issue.

The Kilkenny childcare course


The Sisters of Charity were the first Congregation to establish a training course for people involved in childcare. The course was first held in 1971 and was attended mainly by religious.


Sr Wilma said the idea came from Bishop Birch, and she drew up an outline for the course which was presented to the Department of Education. They agreed to fund it, and it was eventually recognised as an official qualification in residential childcare, and was also recognised by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work in London. Both she and Mr Pat Brennan31 had considerable experience in social work and working with children, but neither of them had actually worked in residential childcare.

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