Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Child abuse: ‘They poisoned my mind against my own mother’

From The Times October 21, 2009

Child abuse: ‘They poisoned my mind against my own mother’
As Ireland is braced for more revelations about paedophile priests, one woman tells of the abuse she endured at the hands of nuns

David Sharrock
Raped and infected with gonorrhoea when she was just 8 years old, then shortly afterwards, seized and sentenced to eight years in a children’s institute run by sadistic nuns, Kathleen O’Malley has spent most of her life hiding from herself. But having emerged stronger from her horrific childhood she has set herself a new challenge: to find the sister who suffered with her.

The facts of Kathleen O’Malley’s life would probably not have been believed ten years ago, not before the dam finally burst on the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

A long-awaited report into clerical abuse in the Diocese of Dublin is expected to be published this week and bishops are bracing themselves for another round of public anger. It will be a horror story of how known paedophile priests were shunted from parish to parish by their religious seniors. The number of children who suffered as a result of the Church’s cover-up could run into thousands.

It will also be another shattering blow to the moral authority of an institution that once ruled Ireland with an iron rod, following hard on the heels of the Ryan report, an independent tribunal that concluded in May after a decade of evidence-gathering that there had been “endemic and systemic” sexual, physical and emotional abuse of hundreds of thousands of Irish children in residential institutions run by religious orders. Four years ago, when Kathleen first told her story in her memoir, Childhood Interrupted, there were plenty of cynics around who were prepared to cast doubt on the extraordinary tale of suffering inside a system that seemed akin to the worst excesses of a totalitarian regime.

But a sea-change has occurred in Ireland since the Ryan report: the anger still swirls and will gather strength again this week with the publication of another report.

The proof of Kathleen’s claims is laid out before her on a coffee table in her smart detached Hertfordshire bungalow: pages and pages of official reports whose secrecy was not easily given up by the Irish authorities.

Two legal documents are chilling. The first is the peremptory record of how Kathleen, with her her sisters, Sarah Louise and Lydia, were taken from their mother in a dawn raid on their Dublin tenement home and found guilty in the children’s court of being “destitute” and “having a parent who does not exercise proper guardianship”. The second is a transcript of the trial of Luke McCabe, a neighbour who raped Kathleen in 1950. It’s extraordinary to read the words of a child being cross-examined by Judge McCarthy in open court: “Do you know what would happen if you told lies?”

Answer: “The Lord would light me.” Looking back, reading those words on the page, Kathleen can laugh now. “I meant I’d get a beating; it was all I knew. But look here, when he asks if I’d been taught the Catechism and knew the difference between right and wrong. I said my mother had taught me. But he ignores that answer and asks if the Sisters of Mercy had taught me. Because I was born out of wedlock she and her child counted for nothing in their eyes.

“The people who took us from Mummy were paid a bounty by the religious orders because the nuns in turn received half a man’s wage per week for every child they took. It was a business. They called us destitute and uncared for, but that’s what they condemned us to — we were loved and cared for, but they took us away and, to rub salt in the wounds, Mummy was forced to pay for it. She had to pay for our upkeep at Moate, the industrial school.”

But the court transcript also reveals glimpses of a strong-willed mother determined to fight for her children. Mary O’Malley told the court that in the eight months that had passed since Kathleen had been taken from her, the nuns had “told her not to tell anybody about the dirty thing that was done to her”.

Although the judge directed the jury to acquit McCabe of the most serious charge of “unlawful carnal knowledge of a minor”, he was found guilty of assault. It was a small but important victory for the O’Malleys. “McCabe got 18 months hard labour but my sisters and I got 25 years of that between us,” Kathleen says.

The regime at Moate was unremittingly grim. “I learnt to be quiet and not draw attention, that’s how I survived. We were the O’Malleys from Dublin, dirty jackeens from the slums was how they described us.As a result, when I finally got out at the age of 16, I ended up wearing a mask and armour all my life. It was drummed into me that I was worthless. We had our own nice clothes taken away and we were put into rags and worked from dawn til dusk in the laundry. We never played, we were sterile, we were given nothing. There was a rusty tap in the yard where we were allowed out for half an hour a day.

“We got an egg a year, a sausage a year, the rest of our food was slop and bread. We were allowed one half-hour visit a year from our mother, who would make a three-hour journey to see us and they wouldn’t even give her a glass of water.

“The annual visit took place in what was called ‘the poor-man’s room’ and it was supervised, with a nun present, so nobody could say anything they really wanted to say. It was horrible; there were always tears. For my mother, any mother, to have her children taken from her . . .”

Kathleen’s eyes redden as her words tumble out. “So I buried it all.”

It has to be said that she did so with remarkable success, leaving Ireland for London as soon as she could, working first in hotels then as a governess for a wealthy French family in Paris, accompanying them on summer holidays in Venice; getting a job with Elizabeth Arden and becoming a beautician working alongside “debs”.

She invented an idyllic childhood, telling new friends about going to boarding school in the Irish countryside. Kathleen even sent Christmas cards each year to “kindly nuns” at Moate, visiting them whenever she returned home to see her mother.

“When I look back on it I cringe and wonder why my mother never said, ‘What on earth do you think you are doing? Are you completely mad?’ The worst part of the whole experience was how they actually poisoned my mind against my mother. The unforgivable part is that they told me and my sisters that my mother had given us up, that she didn’t want us. And we believed that for years.

“I only discovered in later life how hard she fought to get us back. She suffered so much. They bad-mouthed her to us, calling her a ‘streetwalker’.”

One of Kathleen’s greatest regrets is having torn up the only photograph of her with her mother, at a time in life when she really did believe all the nuns had told her. She has a photograph of Mary with her two sons, Kathleen’s half-brothers, who were key to “setting her free” and reordering her memories. “I’d locked the door on the past, I’d stuck it in a trunk, never to be opened. But eventually I felt that I had to prove I wasn’t taken away from Mummy for my own protection. And I discovered a letter about her sons and her fight to keep them.

“By this stage she was married. I think the real problem for us was that I was illegitimate and there was such a stigma attached to that in Ireland. But the letter proved that, if she was fit enough as a mother to have her two young sons, why not her three daughters?”

The Ryan report has been another landmark, not just in Kathleen’s life but in the history of the relationship between Church and State in “Holy Mother Ireland”. Barry Andrews, Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, said last month: “The deference that was at the core of the problem is no longer there.”

That is small consolation for Kathleen O’Malley. “I don’t know at what point the religious gained their power, but they had total power and autonomy to do as they wanted. We were brainwashed to say that we were well-looked after.”

And, looking for proof, she delves once more into the ring-binder folders, producing a letter purporting to have been written by her mother. It says: “I wish to thank the department (of education) for sending them to such a lovely school.”

“That’s my sister’s handwriting, I recognise it,” Kathleen says. “The nuns dictated a letter, which they made my sister write, just as if they were crooked police officers falsifying evidence!”

She is scornful of the progress Ireland is making towards righting these heinous wrongs. “They say they now want to put up a monument to all those who were treated badly. They had a garden party with the President of Ireland, to which around 130 victims were invited, but I wasn’t and neither were thousands of others. And that was like my evidence to the Ryan commission, which was ignored. I was never given the opportunity.”

One of the more controversial aspects of Ireland’s delve into the darkest reaches of its past has been the making of “awards” — the word compensation is avoided — to those affected through the Redress Board.

Kathleen, a magistrate in Middlesex with a solid middle-class lifestyle consisting of golf, line-dancing and strong friendships, may not have felt the need to take up that opportunity, but she is determined to get something for her sister Lydia.

“Lydia suffered the most because she was so much younger than me or Sarah Louise when we were committed to Moate. We were all split up and the system deliberately made sure you did not keep together.

“I would see Lydia from time to time and whenever I did she was rocking back and forth continuously. The day I left Moate I didn’t even give her a hug or a kiss and we had been very close before we went there.”

Eventually Lydia married a US Marine and moved to the US, but divorced him after he became violent. “She moved from one abusive relationship to another. I last saw her in 1975. The last I heard from her was 14 years ago when she was living in Washington DC, but she was vague about her circumstances. I got the impression that she was living in some kind of shelter.

“I wanted to visit but the day before I was due to fly she rang to say that she didn’t want to see me, that she wasn’t allowed visitors, that she’s put on weight and lost her teeth. She was embarrassed but she’s carrying a guilt that she doesn’t deserve. I understand because I have gone through that. I have lived in fear most of my adult life of my childhood catching up with me. I don’t have many leads on where she is now, but I will find Lydia and when I do I will present the proof of her case to the Redress Board.

“I am a very different person now to who I was even five years ago. I remember feeling physically sick when I bumped into someone I was in Moate with. That’s how we were taught to react by the nuns.

“I was ashamed of my name. I remember Sister Cecilia saying ‘I wouldn’t tell anybody who you are or where you’re from’. And they did prepare us for our roles in life as they saw them, which was scrubbing floors. But I don’t care any more. I have nothing to hide.”

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