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Chapter 6 — Sisters of Mercy

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Sexual abuse


The issue of sexual abuse did not feature as prominently in the evidence in relation to schools run by the Sisters of Mercy as it did in relation to schools run by other religious communities. There were, however, some very serious incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by lay staff in some schools, which are dealt with in the individual chapters. During the Emergence hearings, Sr Breege O’Neill stated that the Congregation became aware of a small number of complaints from the Leadership’s discussions with Sisters who were involved in the industrial schools. She stated: I am aware of, I think, three, if not four ... Let me mention that there were three instances where the Resident Manager in a particular institution became aware of a concern that sexual abuse might have occurred in relation to a child. I am talking about an instance in 1960, one in the mid 60s and one in 1969. They were instances where that came to the attention of the Resident Manager and the individual Manager took action herself in relation to each of those three cases that we are aware of. One was in relation to somebody who was visiting the Institution and she barred that person. She mentioned it subsequently to a Department official. The other one was in relation to somebody who was working in a maintenance capacity. Again the Sister had that man removed. The third one was a volunteer coming in and when the Sister heard the complaint she sent for him but he never came back to the Institution. That would be from the recollection of the Sisters themselves ... Some of that, the dismissal, we have found some records that substantiate that.


She informed the Committee that she was not aware that there was anything specific done to help any of those children deal with the trauma of sexual abuse: The picture I get is that this was at a time when sexual abuse was not talked about. It came to somebody’s attention, they dealt with it. Whether they would have been aware of the impact on the child or whether they would have known how to deal with it I am not sure. But I am not aware that any action was taken.


During the Phase I hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue provided some detail on the allegations of sexual abuse in that Institution: A small number of complaints have been made of sexual abuse associated with Goldenbridge. However, the only definite knowledge that we have about sexual abuse in the School relates to 1962. At that time a pupil accused a male caretaker or groundsman of assaulting her and she reported the matter to the Resident Manager, Sr Alida, who went to the Gardaí immediately. The offender was prosecuted and dismissed from employment in the School.


During the Phase III hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue stated that she was unable to comment as to whether any steps were taken to avoid any indecent touching of children, or improper approaches from individuals visiting the School: I am not in a position to comment. I, myself, was not ever there, but I would believe that would be something that is in the mists of time, that we are not in a position to be clear on.


She also accepted that there was no system of vetting outsiders who took children at the weekends and during the holidays: There certainly wasn’t a vetting process that you might expect today, but mostly the families who took children from Goldenbridge were families known to the Sisters, either through having come maybe for entertainment times or for various activities, mostly. Because at one stage I think they did advertise for some people to take them.


The discussion of these topics, by way of introduction to the detailed investigations into abuse in the Sisters of Mercy institutions, is largely based on documents, submissions and evidence of the Sisters of Mercy which were presented by them without being challenged or contradicted.


The system of discrete Congregations created some difficulties and exacerbated others, and generally made the task of each Community more demanding. The Sisters’ vows and religious obligations contributed to the experience of harshness, distance and other deficiencies of care in the institutions.


It is, however, noteworthy that one senior member of the Dublin Community made no reference to these obstacles in 1953, when addressing the needs of good management. Any such impairment of the capacity of the Sisters in their temporal work by reason of spiritual commitments called into question the fitness of the Congregation to undertake work requiring sensitivity and understanding of the needs of others.

  1. 1954 (these Constitutions were revised in 1969, 1972, and 1985).
  2. This is a pseudonym.
  3. The Commission of Inquiry into the Reformatory and Industrial School System, which was required to report to the Minister for Education on the Reformatory and Industrial School System, began its work in 1934, and furnished a report to the Minister in 1936. It was under the Chairmanship of District Justice Cussen.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.