Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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Allegations of sexual abuse in the 1970s


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.


Mr Brennan, who was the Director of the Kilkenny Diploma Course in Residential Childcare, described the course and the training it offered. The course, which ran for 10 years from 1971 to 1981, came about as a result of the recommendations in the Kennedy Report. Bishop Birch offered the Department of Education a house in Kilkenny, and the Bishop sponsored and designed the course. Mr Brennan was acquainted with Bishop Birch and was offered the job of running the course. Sr Wilma was one of the lecturers on the course on a part-time basis. Students who attended the course were sent on placements for in-house training, and St Joseph’s was one of the placement centres. He believed that Sr Wilma was the supervisor of the placements in St Joseph’s; it was considered to be her domain and, as a result, he had very little to do with St Joseph’s.


Prospective students on the course were interviewed by a panel of five, including Mr Brennan and Sr Wilma. There were normally around 50 applicants for 20 places. The requirements were: two years’ experience in residential childcare, the Leaving Certificate, three references, and two essays. He said that the issues of child sexual abuse or incest were never discussed on the course and were not on the agenda. From 1973, there was a huge preoccupation with physical abuse, mainly because of the controversial Maria Colwell case in England, where a child died in 1973 as a result of failure to protect the child in a violent family situation.


The course contents included training on how to deal appropriately with bed-wetting. The course attempted to try and make the participants think for themselves and make decisions on their own, without allowing their religious training to shape all their decisions. The participants were almost entirely made up of religious personnel, and this caused some tensions. He said that some participants left the course, and he was met with some opposition about the content of the course.


Students were followed up after the course. Once a year, there was a residential weekend and they met socially. He personally called on some of the students to assess progress. The course did not require formal feedback from Resident Managers of the institutions to which the students were sent. The course ceased in 1981 because it could not get the professional recognition from the National Council for Educational Awards.


The Pleece case and the Tade cases indicate a high level of immaturity and naivety in dealing with issues of sexual abuse, particularly on the part of Sr Astrid. Allowing these men to leave St Joseph’s and continue with careers in childcare was dangerous and irresponsible. It was not enough to remove them from St Joseph’s. These men posed a risk to children and, with her experience in childcare, Sr Astrid should have been aware of that. The inability to face up to the problem of men abusing young boys was not confined to the Sisters. Experienced Gardaí and professionals were also inadequate in their response to this issue. The period 1978–1990

The period 1978–1990


Sr Astrid continued as Resident Manager of St Joseph’s until 1986, when she was replaced by Sr Livia.32 This was a turbulent period for the Institution, when established methods were questioned, particularly by qualified lay staff who were employed there. The documentation revealed a degree of tension between the Department of Education and the Resident Manager about keeping numbers down. The School was perceived as having too many children to care for any of them properly, although this was not a view shared by the Sisters.

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