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When The Storms Of Life Rage ~*~ Christ Is Still Our Refuge!

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Once in a House Called Nazareth

For more than a century, the Poor Sisters of Nazareth looked after some of the most disadvantaged children in Scotland. They housed them, fed them and instructed them in religion. But did the nuns also subject their young charges to a terrifying regime of physical and mental abuse? That's what 458 of those brought up in Nazareth homes allege. As they prepare to test their claims in court, Catherine Deveney meets the `survivors'.

Even as children we knew the Nazareth House kids in our primary class were different. They weren't Kay or Adam or Tommy. They were the convents. The convents wore shabby clothes and didn't live in a house like the rest of us. Some of us felt sorry for them and wondered what it was like to go home to nuns instead of to a mum and dad. But we didn't ask what went on in the mysterious red sandstone building across the road. We were just glad that it wasn't us in there.

Nazareth House in Glasgow's Cardonald was a handsome, Victorian building, set back behind railings form the road. It had row upon row of gleaming windows and in an alcove above the entrance was a white alabaster statue of the Blessed Virgin. She looked down from above, her arms gently outstretched as through offering succour.

But many of the children who grew up there now say there was no solace in their childhood. Instead there was both physical and mental cruelty.

Despite police investigations throughout Scotland, so far only Grampian Police have pressed criminal charges. Yet many of the accused nuns, it is claimed, are dead. Who is there to prosecute?

The memories are not dead. There are now 458 people who have asked Glasgow solicitors Ross Harper to take civil action against the Catholic nuns who brought them up. The complaints cover all four Scottish Nazareth Homes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen along with Smyllum and Bellevue homes, which were run by the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.

After two years trying to negotiate out of court settlements, lawyer Cameron Fyfe, believes the stalemate is about to be broken. Twelve test cases have been prepared and an opinion sought from senior counsel. In the next few weeks, Fyfe believes he will get the green light to proceed with a unique Scottish action which will have implications for similar cars in other parts of Britain. "It will be quite historic. It would be the biggest court action in Scotland that I am aware of, with nearly 500 cases depending on the outcome."

If the test cases are successful, the order - which stopped looking after children in the early Eighties but still runs old people's homes - could find itself facing a bill for millions of pounds in compensation. It is unlikely to find mother church rallying to provide financial assistance. "You might as well ask the Post Office about it," says Catholic Church spokesman Tom Connolly. "Individual orders are autonomous."

Bishop Mario Conti of Aberdeen disagrees. Of course it's to do with the church. He is supportive of the sisters and says the proper place to defend themselves is in court. But, yes, he also has concerns for those who are accusing, who are so obviously hurt by their memories. "I want the truth," says Bishop Conti.

The sisters were the brides of Christ. They seemed the obvious choice to look after society's most vulnerable children. Many people find it inconceivable that they didn't. "The Poor Sisters of Nazareth," says the order's Aberdeen-based lawyer Gerald Cunningham, "have, to the best of their ability, for the past 130 years or so, devoted their entire lives to the care of orphans, abandoned children, children from broken homes and, in many cases, children refereed from the courts, many of whom suffered consequential emotional disturbances from all these factors."

Cameron Fyfe's clients say it was the nuns who emotionally disturbed them. "Many people can't imagine an order of nuns behaving in this way," says Fyfe. "It's very surprising. But it would be even more surprising if 500 people decided to collude. It will be up to the court to decide if it happened ..."

Sandra Brennan removed the full length mirrors in her bedroom when she moved into her house. Sister Patrick said the devil was inside her. She'd see the devil if she looked in the mirror.

She still sees Sister Patrick in nightmares, the tall, thin shape of her stepping from behind holy statues in darkened rooms. "If I woke up and saw anything in the mirror. I would go to pieces," says Sandra.

Most children have tales that frighten them - bogeymen in the cupboard, ghosts under the bed - but being told that she was evil, that the devil was trapped inside her, affected Sandra's sense of identity into adulthood. She felt worthless. Later, low self-esteem developed into self-mutilation. "It sounds ludicrous now but when I cut myself it was as if I was trying to release some of the pain that was inside me."

Sandra is now 40. She was six when she stood outside Kilmarnock's Nazareth House and watched her father's car disappear down the drive. Her mother had run off to Australia, leaving her husband with six children. Sandra wasn't his, she told him before she left. Her mother was a hussy, Sister Patrick said. She didn't love Sandra. Nobody did.

There always seemed to be a simmering rage inside Sister Patrick. If they wet the bed, they were beaten. If they didn't sweep the floor properly, made their beds incorrectly or talked to boys, they were beaten. Sandra tried to be silent to expunge any personality to avoid the beatings. It didn't work. She still remembers the feeling of blood from the wounds trickling down her thighs beneath her skirt.

Those scars healed. But Sister Patrick's anger exploded one day into something that was to leave permanent mental scars on Sandra. She was eight years old and had lifted one of the younger children onto her knee to stop her crying. But contact was forbidden. When Sister Patrick came in, she grabbed hold of Sandra furiously.

"She pulled me upstairs to her room. She kept slapping me, telling me I was bold and that the devil was in me. She wanted to know what I was doing to the wee girl. She said I was cuddling her because I wanted something from her. I didn't understand what she was talking about."

Sister Patrick told her to take her clothes off. Sandra anticipated another beating. "I asked her not to hit me but she told me to shut up. Her whole face was different. She was so angry. She slapped my backside and then she grabbed hold of me between the legs and said: "Is that what you want?"

Sandra was crying. Sister Patrick was hurting her. But her tears seemed to spark more anger. "She threw me against the wall and told me to shut up. Then she told me to put my clothes on and not say another word. She said because she was a nun she knew what the devil was and the devil was inside me and she had to get it out."

For three years, Sister Patrick made up misdemeanours as an excuse for further abuse. She once grabbed hold of Sandra as she was brushing the floor with a handbrush and shovel, accusing the little girl of missing a section. "She took me in her room," says Sandra quietly, "and used the brush inside me. She told me to stay really still. This was her way of trying to get the devil out."

Sandra is a shy, softly spoken woman. She feels embarrassed by what she has to tell. Sometimes, she thinks it was her fault. She should have made more fuss. She looks across her immaculate sitting room at me and a faint pinkness tinges her cheeks: "I feel dirty in your presence."

It is knowing that someone knows. This is the first time she has spoken publicly about what happened. Until now, only the therapist she saw for five years knew the details of the sexual abuse. Telling her therapist changed her life. "For the first time in my life, I was believed. I saw it in her eyes."

When she was a child, she'd tried to tell someone once. She was frightened she would die and got to hell, so she told a priest. In the darkness of the confessional box, she stammered out her story. It was safe, the confessional. You could tell a priest you'd murdered someone and he would never tell.

But as the words stumbled out she heard the slamming of the door. The priest hauled her from the box. She was the most disgusting child he had ever met. He took her back to Sister Patrick and told her what she'd said. "I'll leave you to punish her," he said. Sister Patrick made sure she never told anyone again. How did she do that? "She made it sorer for me than she had ever done before."

It stopped when Sandra had her first period. She was terrified when she saw the blood. She was even more terrified Sister Patrick would see it. Convinced she was ill, she tried scrubbing the sheet. She was brazen, said Sister Patrick when she found her. She wasn't to talk to any boys. Sister Patrick threw her a pad and a belt and locked her in a cupboard.

In her childhood, there was only one person Sandra though was her friend. Jesus. She had a picture she was given at her first communion which showed Christ sitting with a child on his knee. When she looked at it, she knew Sister Patrick wasn't right. She hadn't done wrong.

The prayer on the back meant a lot to her. What was it? She recites it verbatim, as though the words are etched in her soul. " ... It was then I learned in meekness, that love demands a price; It was then I knew that sorrow, is but the kiss of Christ." It was the last bit that meant the most. "Whenever I was unhappy I used to think, he must be kissing me now."

He's kissed her plenty in her life. There were suicide attempts, a failed marriage, the death of her child. But that all came later. When she left the convent first, what had she done then? There's an unmistakable hesitation. And then she says softly, "I became a nun."

Hammersmith, London. Headquarters of the Sisters of Nazareth. Is there a spokesperson who can discuss the abuse allegations? The receptionist at the end of the line sounds polite but apprehensive. She'll put me through to the office manager, Mr Watts. "We do not speak to anyone about things like that," says Mr Watts. "I was a journalist for 35 years with the News of the World and we never stooped to this grubbing about for information." Actually, it was the News of the World who printed the first allegation. So all 458 cases are fantasy? "There is nothing in it," says Mr Watts furiously, "Go away." The phone slams down.

A habit is like a magic suit. Or maybe like the Emperor's new clothes. Put it on and the people see something else. Perfection. "When a nun goes into court, people will see a habit first and a vulnerable old woman second," Sandra says, "but they weren't always old women."

She's not that interested in court cases. She doesn't want the order destroyed. They weren't all bad. When she was 14, Sister Patrick was replaced by Sister Michael who was only in her 20s. It was the first time Sandra heard laughter in the convent. It is acknowledgement that she wants, not revenge. And money? It would feel like that's what I was worth."

The accusers are sometimes said to be organising a vendetta against the nuns. But Sandra was a nun too. She chose her order carefully, spending four years with Mother Theresa's sisters, first in London then Rome. She dealt with the dying and the destitute, with alcoholics and drug addicts. "I loved the people we were with. People that were smelly, that had open wounds. The people others walk by and turn their noses up at." She identified closely with them. "I knew what it was like not to be loved. I hope I touched someone in that time, even with one act of kindness."

But she began to question Catholic theology. She never lost her faith in God but she loved her faith in Catholicism.

Many convent children found the same. Margaret Scott has never been back to a Catholic church since leaving Nazareth House in Cardonald. Now 67, she is one of Fyfe's test cases, but until she approached lawyers, she had never even told her husband about her experiences. Why talk now? "Because it was as if this all only happened in the Sixties and Seventies and that's not right. Perhaps if we'd spoken up it wouldn't have continued, but who would have believed us? Adults were so powerful."

There is a photograph taken the day Margaret Scott entered the convent in 1936. She is in her grandfather's arms and has on the convent dress, thin cotton and sleeveless, though it's the middle of February.

Her hand clutches anxiously at her mouth, but it's her eyes that haunt the picture, dark fearful eyes that peer out from a heavy fringe of glossy dark hair.

Margaret was the illegitimate child of a young Catholic girl. Her mother suffered from epilepsy which deteriorated so badly she was taken to a mental institution. Margaret was told she was dead. She lived with her grandfather and two uncles until she was five, but it was felt a young girl couldn't be brought up by three men. The nuns would do it better.

She wasn't charity, she says. Her grandfather paid for her. Not that it made any difference. What she remembers is the diet of bread and dripping, the constant feeling of hunger. They stole bread from the kitchen, hiding it in their knicker pockets.

Out the back, where they grey high rise flats now dominate the skyline, were green fields full of carrots and potatoes and corn owned by the nuns. The children never saw any of it. Only the milk was good and plentiful. The nuns kept their own cows.

They were permanently cold because they had no warm clothes, and their heads were full of lice. There were no toys and any their families gave were immediately removed. There were also the beatings. Margaret remembers once failing to get all the babies' sheets changed before she left for school. She returned to a thrashing. "They were sadistic. They were the nuns from hell. Everything was based on fear."

Afterwards, Margaret hurt so much she cried for hours. She's crying now. It happened more than 50 years ago, but the memories still hurt. She weeps for what can never be regained. "I never had a childhood," she says.

Only after she left the convent did she discover her mother was still alive. She was told her father had wanted to marry her mother but her deeply religious grandfather put his foot down because her father was Protestant. But she could never blame her grandfather who came faithfully to the monthly visits. "I loved that man," she says. "If it hadn't been for him I would never have got through it."

Margaret went to visit her mother dressed in her powder blue wedding suit. She will never forget her mother's words when she was told that this stranger was her daughter. "Love is blind," she said and began to cry. "I want my baby."

They were different times, supposedly more decent ones, and definitely stricter. The nuns, it has been argued, were just using the discipline of the day. But while parents may have used corporal punishment more readily, it's hard to believe ordinary parents then would be any less shocked by drawing blood from a child than parents now.

It's true the children were from unhappy backgrounds. It is possible they look back and blame the nuns for their childhood circumstances? But most accusers don't blame the entire order. Their allegations are very specific. Like Alex from Stoke. Alex has heard an article is being written and phones wanting to tell his story. He was at Smyllum and it was Sister Louisa who was cruel to him. He tells me where she's based now.

Sister Louisa's voice is as sweet and gentle as a ... well as a nun's. What are her memories of Smyllum? She remembers the joy. The beautiful atmosphere. "From the bottom of my heart, I can't say anything against it. They were the happiest days of my life."

Over 100 people are telling Cameron Fyfe they certainly weren't the happiest days of their lives. Why should that be? "I don't know. I really don't know," says Sister Louisa. "When I hear those things I'd love to sit down and have an honest chat with the person to see what's in their minds."

I've been told the nuns hit the children with sticks, I tell her. "Gosh that's sad," she says. "Yes that's sad." They were smacked sometimes, but never beaten. What does she mean by smacked? Just a smack." Never with sticks? "Oh no, no. I loved the children. I honestly did."

Would she be surprised to hear someone was accusing her? She would. I give her a name. Does she remember Alex? She does. "A beautiful child with chubby rosy cheeks". They had a good relationship. She doesn't think any less of him for saying these things. Who knows what she would be saying if she'd had his life. "When I think how some of these children were when they came to us," she says softly, "so broken and destroyed".

How do the stories make her feel? She doesn't think much about them. They sound like something from dickens to her. "It must be difficult for you," she says, "getting two such different stories . . ." She laughs as she says goodbye. "I don't think my story would sell many papers." I hear her voice just as I am replacing the receiver. "God bless," she purrs.

Alina Johnson from Glasgow doesn't think the children got it wrong. She remembers exactly what Cardonald's Nazareth House was like in the Fifties. Every day when they came home from school, the girls were made to show the heels of their socks. Anyone who had a hole was beaten. At night, they had to sleep with arms crossed over their shoulders. Like a corpse in a coffin. Sometimes the nuns would pull back the sheets as they slept. If the arms weren't crossed, they were awakened by blows.

Worst of all, she remembers her friend Christina trying to run away. Her group were forced to form a circle while Christina was told to strip. Then two nuns beat her with sticks. "Christina was screaming and screaming, going completely mad," says Alina. "We were upset, frightened. Later that night, she was awakened from sleep to hear more screams. Christina was being dragged through the dorm. Alina never saw her again.

It's not the only such story. The consistency of accounts from people in different parts of Scotland is remarkable. The same stories also cross the generations. A psychological report about those who will bring test cases by Ian Tierney of the Keil Centre notes "remarkably similar experiences of physical and psychological ill-treatment". As adults, the group have displayed higher than average levels of anxiety and depression. Half have attempted suicide.

Many who were brought up in the homes also feel it affected their ability to form relationships. Martin Kelly is 29 and lived in Edinburgh's Nazareth House. He wants to be married, have kids. But he's frightened to commit himself.

He's an extrovert with his long flowing hair and pierced body. His flat has orange walls and African masks and he's painted a giant mural in his bathroom. When he talks, there's a constant click as his pierced tongue tip taps against his teeth. "I'm an exhibitionist. I have to be noticed. But I've got a brave exterior and a soft interior. I fall in love easily and I want people to like me. I get angry and upset if they don't."

Childhood, he says, was living in constant fear. Not every day was bad. But the mere mention of Sister James made him cower.

Once, she beat him till he couldn't sit and left him curled naked on a cold tiled floor overnight. And once she took a bunch of keys and struck his knuckles over and over till he was cut to the bone. "Clean his hands up," she said to a carer, walking out of the room.

Martin brings out a scrapbook with a picture of an ordinary looking woman. I'll tell you how frightened I was, he says. Sometimes he was allowed home visits to his alcoholic mother and stepfather his mother used to let him light her cigarettes, but once he dropped the match and set light to the chair where his stepfather was drunkenly sleeping.

His mother panicked and threw water over the chair. His stepfather didn't believe she hadn't started the fire and seized her in a deadlock. Martin watched the blood rush to her face. "Tell the truth," his stepfather said. But he was telling the truth. "I'm going to tell Sister James," said his stepfather. The name terrified Martin so much, he said what his stepfather wanted to hear. "Mum did it," he shouted. His mother was beaten so badly she was taken to hospital.

Sister James seemed so different to adults. "She seemed so caring and loving," says one convent visitor who knew her. "So spiritual." But he does remember mentioning her special qualities some time later to a care worker. "You never saw the real Sister James," he was told.

Martin came forward when he saw a friend on television defending the nuns. Martin was in a different group and his own experiences were so different. Looking back, he can't help wondering if the permanent anger some nuns displayed was about frustration, both sexual and emotional. Some became nuns at 16 and for some young Irish girls becoming a nun was part of family expectations. "They took a vow of celibacy but their bodies didn't," says Martin.

The children of Nazareth House are all adults now. But Joseph, a 45-year-old Glaswegian, is trying to recover evidence he hid in the Aberdeen convent where he spent his childhood. His series of notes will allege physical abuse by Sister Oswald, now dead, and sexual abuse by one of the male carers. Lawyers' negotiations over access to the building are still going on.

Joseph says he'll carry the memories of cruelty for the rest of his life. His job was unlocking the church and he remembers opening the door one morning and a little girl running out screaming. There was to be a funeral that morning and she had been locked in overnight with the open coffin, as a punishment for some misdemeanour, real or imagined. She had wet herself. When Joseph went in, there were scratch marks down the door.

Why did the children not speak out? Occasionally they did. One tried to tell a social worker. He was severely beaten by the nuns afterwards. Nothing was done. And there was the time a child went to school with injuries. The headmaster called in the police but the matter was quietly dropped. "Kids nowadays would say why didn't you hit them back?" says Joseph, "but it was a different kettle of fish then."

Attempts to tell always failed. Sandra Brennan once ran bleeding to the social work department in Kilmarnock. The social worker told her she should pray for the nuns. Years later she returned and asked why he had done nothing. She had been in the best place, he told her. What was he supposed to have done? Where would he have put all those kids?

The nuns were seen as having absolute power. "I blame the authorities," says Margaret Scott. "They never checked these homes properly. They never actually spoke to the children."

Instead the children were silenced, by the church, by the local authorities, by the police who brought back the runaways, and by our expectations. We couldn't believe nuns would do these things. And we didn't want to believe it because we didn't know what we would do if it were true.

They made the children kiss the dead nuns in Nazareth House. In Margaret Scott's day it cost money to bring doctors in and it's the dead children she remembers more. They had to file past and look at corpses in their white coffins. They were dressed in their communion dresses and Margaret thought they looked like little princesses. The nuns said they were their little angels.

The names of those referred to as Sandra Brennan, Sister Patrick, Sister Louisa and Sister James have been changed to protect their identities.

When The Storms Of Life Rage ~*~ Christ Is Still Our Refuge!