Wednesday, October 8, 2008

‘These are the voices that need to be heard’

‘These are the voices that need to be heard’
Sorry. Elizabeth McWilliams is sick of the word. She said it when she was lied to. She said it when she was beaten. She said it when she was raped aged nine. Now she thinks it's time somebody else apologised.
Ms McWilliams was one of the children - their number simply unknown - who were physically, sexually and emotionally tortured in Scottish care homes. And then told they had only themselves to blame.
Yesterday she sat through the first independent report into Scotland's "national shame", a half-century of abused youngsters whose cries for help were ignored.
"I hope society can now accept this once and for all," Ms McWilliams, 70, told the report's author Tom Shaw. "I hope I am going to get an apology."
The Shaw report - officially titled Historical Abuse Systemic Review - was not the full-fledged public inquiry Ms McWilliams and hundreds of fellow campaigners had wanted. It was certainly not an apology. But it remains the biggest public acknowledgement of children's suffering to date.
Mr Shaw, a former teacher and schools inspector from Northern Ireland, named no names. Nor did he hazard a guess at the scale of the abuse in the period he covered, 1950 to 1995. Instead he gave voice to the unheard. A whole chapter of his report was devoted to the words, anonymous but strong, of those who survived abuse.
One of those voices was Ms McWilliams. For around 16 years, from 1939 to 1954, she lived - and suffered - in the Quarriers Village in Bridge of Weir, a Christian community of cottages, each with their own mother and father, that was supposed to replace the horrors of mass orphanages.
The cottage parents, however, expected some gratitude from Ms McWilliams, then little Elizabeth Miller, and her fellow residents. Their story is typical of those abused, but always made to feel guilty on behalf of their abusers.
"All my life I kept apologising," she said last night. "Please, please, please, I am so sorry, I would say. That's why I don't like the word.
"I had such low esteem. We were children but we were told we were worthless good-for-nothings."
Ms McWilliams came to Quarriers at one. She arrived with a twin brother, but was separated from him. "He was put in Cottage nine, for the boys. I was in Cottage 11."
She only learned that the boy, Archie, was her brother when they were, she thinks, about 12. "A teacher let it slip," she said. "But we were still not allowed to talk.
"It was a really religious place. The boys and girls went to church together, but the boys came in one door and the girls another. I never got to know my brother. We have no relationship."
She can't be exactly sure that she found out about her brother when she was 12. Age was always tricky. "We never knew our birthdays," she explained. "We only knew our age by the jobs we were doing. When I was five I was the bedroom girl. When I was 15 I was the kitchen girl."
They could count on Christmas, of course, but not on Christmas gifts. "I wanted Fair Isle gloves," she said. "One year I asked for them. You would say what you wanted and you would get a slap. Think again,' I was told. A bible would suit you.' Next year I got a hymn book. I couldn't read. I was blind in one eye but only got glasses when I was eight and a half."
When she was nine - or thereabouts - she was raped by the man Quarriers called her house father. "He took his chance," she said matter-of-factly.
Some children complained of abuse. That had consequences. "Boys," she said. "Well, they were hung up on door hangers and their penises tied to doorhandles." Her worst abuse? "Having no identity," she said yesterday. "To be told, wrongly, you were an orphan. To be lied to as a child, not even being able to dream about belonging to anybody. I don't belong to anybody or any place. It's a terrible feeling."
Quarriers was just one of many institutions where children were abused. Nobody knows the scale. Records are lost - "scattered", said Mr Shaw. No-one even knows for sure how many institutions there were from the 1950s to 1990s that looked after children, many the orphans of the men and women who fought for Britain in the war.
David Whelan, however, believes Quarriers is a special case, deserving a study, a public inquiry, in its own right, such was the horror of its regime. He said: "It was not a care ethos. It was an abuse ethos."
Mr Whelan was at the Bridge of Weir village from 1969 to 1974, between the ages of 10 and 15. He kept silent about the abuse he suffered, until he was asked, by the wife of a man under investigation for child abuse, to serve as a character witness.
He refused and instead turned witness for the prosecution, helping to secure the conviction of John Porteous, who was jailed for eight years, later reduced to five on appeal, for sexually abusing Mr Whelan, now 50, and others.
Mr Shaw, from the outset of his report, had warned of the dangers of applying 21st century morals to historic abuse. Mr Whelan, however, has little time for such niceties. The abuse that took place, after all, would have been illegal at the time. "We should not make excuses for the past," he said.
Helen Holland agrees. Now 49, she was sent to Nazareth House in Kilmarnock, a children's home run by nuns, when she was five. "My grandmother had died and my father was told, by our parish priest, that it was not decent for me and my sisters to live in a house with three men.
"The three men were my dad, my uncle and my grandfather. Ironic, really, at Nazareth House I was raped by a priest."
Two days after Ms Holland was brought to the home she was beaten to a pulp by a nun after being found, lonely and frightened, snuggling up to her big sister in a single bed. "She called me a brazen hussie," Ms Holland said.
Later, when Ms Holland was eight, a nun pulled a hood over her head to help a priest rape her. The sexual abuse went on for three years until, aged 11, she fell pregnant. The same nun kicked her in the stomach until she miscarried.
Scotland, Mr Shaw announced, should have a national task force, answerable to parliament and not the executive, whose sole job should be to listen to children, young and old, in whoever's care they are in, church or state.
"I am deeply concerned about the possibility of people who were not listened to as children not being listened to as adults," Mr Shaw said yesterday, calling for a centre for historic abuse, a one-stop shop where stories - and records - could be collected, lest anyone forget.
Why? Because, Mr Shaw said, there are still children who are "out of sight and out of mind".
www.survivorscotland.org.uk
12:47am Friday 23rd November 2007
By DAVID LEASK

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