Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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Sexual abuse incident of 1954


Sharon9 was one of five children. She lived with her parents in Dublin. The home situation was not good: her father and mother had problems, there was domestic violence and alcohol abuse, and the family faced eviction. In these circumstances, the children were taken into care. She and two of her sisters were admitted into St Joseph’s, Kilkenny. She saw very little of her two sisters in the School. Her parents did not visit, her mother only came once. Her first memories were of being very frightened and trying to keep herself small. She hid under beds or behind her older sister. She remembers being very lonely and isolated. She had no one to turn to except her sister.


Prior to the day of the transfer to St Anne’s, she remembered the ‘set’ she was in were summoned into the sitting room. They were told that some of them had been very bold. She has only a hazy recollection of what else was said, but the outcome of it was that nine or 10 of them were segregated and not allowed to mix with any other girls. They were kept in cubicles in the dormitory and could not leave there, other than to get food and then return. She remembered Sr Ella10 and Sr Liv11 were there at the time, as were a number of other nuns. They were told they had committed mortal sins and sins of immodesty. She and her older sister were transferred, but another sister was left behind and she did not see her again until she was 16.


On the day of the transfer, she was pleased because she thought they were only going out for the day, as they were told they were going to the zoo. She was shocked to discover this was a lie: it was the first time a nun had lied to her. Her transfer papers to Kilmacud described her as ‘not of previous good character’. She only saw these papers recently, when revealed by the Commission, and was deeply upset at this description, as she was only 10 years old at the time.


Sharon said that the nuns in St Joseph’s were obsessed with religion. There was an endless litany of Mass, Novenas, Benediction, retreats, fasting, grace before and after meals, prayers night, noon and morning, and so on. She felt that the nuns were more concerned with saving their souls then anything else. They did not encourage the children to nurture friendships, and she remembered one occasion in particular: when she held the hand of a friend as they went for their Sunday walk, a nun came from behind and silently separated them.


This witness remembered very little about her schooling or the teachers, other than a climate of fear in the classroom. She attended school within the Institution. Sr Liv was the schoolteacher, and she was very strict and used a stick to slap children.


Sharon said that St Anne’s, even though it was a reformatory for girls, was wonderful in comparison to St Joseph’s. There was more freedom, she did not feel she was under the microscope. She never felt safe in Kilkenny, but she did not have the same feeling in St Anne’s. The transfer papers had described her as ‘not of previous good character’, yet the Sisters in St Anne’s never made her feel like that. In St Anne’s, she was recognised as a person. As an example, she described the following: In a little way ... that I was walking on my first walk and Sister Ellen12, who was in charge, actually took my hand. I can never forget that moment because on the one hand what was so sinful in Kilkenny, well maybe that is going too far but I wasn’t allowed to do that and here I was in St Anne’s and Sister Ellen took my hand.


She was introduced to the world of books in Kilmacud and became an avid reader in later life, despite having been classified as almost illiterate in Kilkenny. The food in St Anne’s was not good but, because she was happy there, it did not seem to matter.


She is close to her sisters. She only found out in recent times that her older sister had been abused by Mr Jacobs in 1954, and that would have accounted for the complainant’s removal from St Joseph’s. Her younger sister remained in Kilkenny.


In their Submission, the Sisters of Charity disclosed that the current leadership of the Congregation first heard about the Jacobs case when they were shown documents discovered by the Department of Education in the course of investigating a complaint. Sr Úna O’Neill stated: There is no record of any kind in any of the files of the Sisters of Charity regarding this matter and they were not aware of what had happened until the Commission made the file available for inspection to the Congregation’s Solicitors in 2001.


The Sisters of Charity submitted their observations on the case. Their position was defensive. In relation to the discovery of abuse by Dr McCabe, they stated: Even Dr Anna McCabe with her medical training, expertise and the high reputation for professionalism which she appears to have earned within the Department (in the opinion of the current Secretary General), had to persist in her interviews and questioning before evidence of abuse emerged.


From the documents, however, it would appear that the abuse emerged in the course of very gentle questioning that did not depend on medical training and expertise. Dr McCabe was thorough and prepared to coax and listen: the Sisters allude to this approach as ‘persistence’.


The Submission went on to state that there was no evidence that the Sisters were ‘anything other than totally co-operative throughout Dr McCabe’s investigation’. Given that the investigation was into the serious sexual crimes against eight- and nine-year-old children in their care, nothing less than total co-operation would have been expected.


The Submission further asserted that, had the Sisters themselves discovered Mr Jacobs’s abuse, they would have acted as decisively as they did when it was brought to their attention by Dr McCabe. The documents indicated the abuse was indeed brought to their attention by one of the little girls, and she was not believed, and her complaint was dismissed by both Sr Stella and Sr Tova.


The Submission concluded: In these circumstances any adverse finding against the Sisters or criticism of them would be unfair and unwarranted.


This Submission was prepared in 2006. It did not address the appalling plight of the children who were abused by Mr Jacobs; it did not examine the attitude of the Sisters in seeking to remove the victims to a reformatory; it did not question the integrity of Sr Tova, who gave one account to Dr McCabe about the complaint made to Sr Stella, and a completely different one to the Department officials and the parish priest; it did not acknowledge the damage done to these children by the sexual abuse and its consequences, which included the children being isolated from their friends and removed to reformatories. Far from trying to help these damaged girls, the Sisters chose to dispose of them as bad influences. With their removal, the whole episode was expunged from the history of St Joseph’s.

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