On 28th November 1954, the Mother General of the Congregation wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the Department to thank him for his kindness: I shall never forget your kindness during your visit to Kilkenny, and you may count on my poor prayers. Please God, the unpleasant affair is closed forever and we shall hope that there shall never be a repetition.
In January 1995, a Garda Sergeant, stationed at Kilkenny Garda Station, began an investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse at St Joseph’s School in Kilkenny. In the course of his enquiries, he heard allegations of severe sexual abuse, including buggery, and of physical abuse against two men who had been employed in St Joseph’s during the 1970s. The first of these allegations involved Thomas Pleece,20 who was employed in St Joseph’s from 1972 until 1976, when he was summarily removed by the Resident Manager following complaints by boys.
Thomas Pleece admitted sexual abuse in St Joseph’s, as well as in St Augustine’s where he had worked previously, and also to abusing two boys fostered by him after he left St Joseph’s. He was indicted on 271 counts and received a 10-year sentence in October 1997.
After the decision to take in young boys in 1966, the Department of Education Inspectors recommended that St Joseph’s should employ male staff to help care for them. The first of these carers was Thomas Pleece.
Thomas Pleece completed the course and, on completion, was highly recommended to Sr Astrid, who appointed him with sole responsibility for 16 teenage boys. He was House Parent for Summerhill, one of the group homes in St Joseph’s. According to Sr Úna O’Neill, who gave evidence to the Committee as Superior General of the Congregation: He was the House Parent for Summerhill so he would effectively have been in charge of the house. The manager would have visited as she did fairly regularly all of the houses each day and every evening. She and all concerned thought it was a great achievement to have a man in charge of the boys. In his professional child care capacity it was assumed that he would act as a father figure and role model for them.
Thomas Pleece said in evidence that he first became involved with childcare when he started to work in St Augustine’s Special School in Blackrock. He admitted to sexual abuse of boys in St Augustine’s. He had formerly worked in a factory.
At the end of the year, he was offered a job in St Joseph’s and took up the position in September 1972. He explained: I was approached by Sr Astrid and asked if I would be interested in taking over the group of boys in St Joseph’s, that they were going to put all the boys together and once the holidays came in June, that they would be splitting that mixed group up and changing that unit to a boys’ unit and I could take it over as the team leader there, if you like. Mr Pleece said that, although he would have had regular contact with social workers, volunteers and two other Sisters in the Community who worked in the unit, it was Sr Astrid who was most in contact with him: I suppose Sr Astrid was the one that would have had her finger on anything that was going on in the unit. You must remember that Sr Astrid was a mother figure to all of the children in St Joseph’s. The boys, I mean, idolised her. When she came over, like, it was an event every time because they all wanted to speak to her and give her a hug and whatever, you know. She was wonderful with the children.
Thomas Pleece left St Joseph’s between September 1973 and April 1974 and went to work in Drogheda, where he was offered a job which paid slightly better than St Joseph’s. He paid one visit to Kilkenny during the time he worked in Drogheda, and became aware that the children were not happy with his replacement. Sr Astrid met him and they discussed the possibility of his coming back. He agreed, provided she could match his salary in Drogheda. He returned to Kilkenny in April 1974 and remained there until 1976.
She recalled that Thomas Pleece attended the first childcare course in Kilkenny and was the first layman to do the course. She interviewed him with all the other applicants. He satisfactorily completed the course and she was sure she would have recommended him to the Sister in charge in St Joseph’s, although she did not remember specifically doing so. She recalled he was a good student and had impressed on the course. Once Thomas Pleece started to work in St Joseph’s, she had no contact with him. She may have met him once or twice in the grounds but had no real contact. In her Garda statement, she recalled he had an Alsatian dog which she was terrified of. She did not remember discussing his progress in St Joseph’s. Sr Astrid did not tell her about his dismissal or the circumstances surrounding it. She did not know why he left and never enquired about it.
Richard Evans did part-time work at St Joseph’s five nights per week. He helped the children with sport and homework, and did leisure supervision. He recalled the boys coming to him with allegations that they were being interfered with by Thomas Pleece: It was in the spring of ‘74 ... After a lot of conversation with the boys, a lot of cajoling, they came to me and they were saying that Mr Pleece was abusing them. The way they put it was he was interfering with them when they were in bed at night ... Joe,23 Simon24 and Justin,25 and there was a few more of them. They didn’t want to go to tell anybody because they knew they were going to be punished if they did. They were going to suffer repercussions. Because there was an awful lot of abuse going on that I knew nothing about, physical and sexual, and I knew nothing about it. I wouldn’t have known anything about it at the time.
The boys complained again: After about two, three weeks they came back to me again and they were afraid to go at the start and said they wouldn’t go to report it to anybody, there was no one going to listen to them. I said, ’What’s the harm in going over and telling the Reverend Mother anyway? ... They were complaining about Thomas Pleece interfering with them in bed, their private parts, interfering with them, taking them out of bed and bringing them to his room and that sort of stuff ... I listened to what they were saying and I said, “We’ll have to do something about it. We need to tell somebody this is going on, that it needs to stop”. Even at that stage they still weren’t prepared to, you know, to make it public that they were going to go to somebody in authority ... I think a lot of it was the fact that if Thomas Pleece found out about it they would get more abuse, they would get physical abuse.
Mr Evans recalled saying something to Thomas Pleece after he had spoken with Sr Astrid: ... But after the occasion of going seeing the Reverend Mother with Joe I remember saying something – Now, I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I think I said it to Thomas Pleece that if you are interfering with them boys, “You shouldn’t be interfering with them boys”, or “You should leave them alone” or “What the hell is going on” or something of that nature I said to him. His reaction was “What business is it of yours?” or “You are only such and such, what the hell are you going to do about it?” or something like that.
Whatever was said, Thomas Pleece resented Richard Evans after that: Now, Thomas Pleece always had an Alsatian and that was his main threat with everybody, the Alsatian would be put on you or set on you if you opened your mouth or stepped in the wrong place. He did resent me after that. It was quite obvious that he must have known or found out we had gone to the Reverend Mother and he wasn’t happy about it. I don’t think after that occasion that I ever spoke to him after that.
Sr Astrid had maintained that she had no recollection of anyone speaking to her about sexual abuse by Thomas Pleece, consequently Richard Evans was asked to spell out how explicit he had been with her: Well, I originally stated to the Reverend Mother that Thomas Pleece was putting his hands in under the bedclothes in interfering with the boys’ private parts and that Joe was there to make a complaint. He didn’t particularly say that Pleece was catching them, feeling their penises or anything but he was interfering with them under the clothes, their private parts I think is the way he put it. But there was no mention of other than that. From what has transpired since that, there was an awful lot worse than that going on. But that didn’t come out with Sr Astrid that night.
That meeting between Joe, Richard Evans and Sr Astrid took place at the beginning of the spring of 1974, some months after Thomas Pleece had been brought back to Kilkenny from his eight-month period of employment in Drogheda.