St Jeanne Antide Thouret, Daughter of Charity
Of the thousand or so posts published on this website, over the last ten years, still the most frequently re-visited, perhaps rather surprisingly, are those I have written on the subject of the abusive culture in the schools and institutions run by the Daughters of Charity: including the primary school which I attended as a child, and the separate Orphanage which lay behind the school, St Vincents, on the Ridgeway, in Mill Hill.
These posts continue to be read, on a daily basis, and I often receive comments from some of those who attended such institutions: whether schools, or, more usually, the residential homes. Some of these I do not publish, either because they are too personal, too distressing - or for legal reasons.
'Annie', * a fragile, vulnerable survivor of one of these institutions contacted me last year, and spent many hours on the phone, and then in person, slowly disclosing the experiences of her life as a young teenager at Mill Hill: a tale of psychological abuse and physical punishment - the total absence of loving care. She had tried to report what had happened to her to the police, on her own, without support. They had dismissed her account.
* All names in this post have been changed.
Last year 'Phil', another former victim of alleged abuse: physical, psychological and sexual, suffered while in the 'care' of the Daughters of Charity in the 1960s, wrote to me with details of the truly terrible experiences that he and his brothers suffered, at two different homes run by the Order, one of them Mill Hill.
His account was profoundly shocking, reporting years of appalling treatment, physical and emotional abuse - and predatory sexual behaviour, including rape. I urged him to consider submitting evidence to IICSA, the Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. He has now done so. As I understand it, police have also been informed.
I have read his submission, and it was detailed, graphic, and unsparing: impossible to read without feeling the intensity of pain created by such a perverse and sustained betrayal of childhood, innocence - and trust.
One of his brothers took his own life, in later years.
Such is the unbearable legacy of abuse for some victims: one that too often proves impossible to leave behind. Many others are unable to function as adults, burdened with depression, anxiety and intrusive memories of the past: unable to form lasting, healthy adult relationships, unsurprisingly, after grossly abusive, sexualised childhoods, with no safeguarding, no loving care, and no family support.
That any child should be subjected to such treatment is insupportable. That this cruelty was perpetrated in the name of God, and the Church, is simply, and literally, beyond belief.
The Daughters of Charity were founded in France, in the 1630s, by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac when they began their work caring for the sick, and the poor, for those abandoned on the streets: observing their Christian faith in practical help for those in need.
The first mission to England arrived in 1847, invited by a wealthy Catholic cotton merchant to work in the slum conditions in Manchester and Salford that had so appalled Engels in his time there, less than five years earlier.
The order continued to expand across the world, and and in the UK began to devote itself to education, and the care of children. St Vincent's School for Boys (girls were admitted later) was opened at Mill Hill, in 1887, followed by a primary school. By the 1960s and 1970s, the work the Order undertook was increasingly becoming the statutory responsibility of the social care system, and the Order's residential homes, including the home in Mill Hill, were closed. Now their charitable work continues in social projects, for vulnerable and homeless people.
Somewhere, sometime, during the twentieth century, the vision of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac was entirely lost, and generations of children left in the care of the Daughters of Charity were subjected to a merciless regime that not only enabled abuse and neglect, but allowed the perpetrators to evade any sanction for their behaviour.
That some of the victims of such failure in safeguarding have struggled for their voices to be heard, and their grievances to be addressed, is unforgivable: only now is there any formalised process of investigation by the government into this dark history - and the Church itself appears unable still to address the enormity of the scale of this problem.
St Vincent de Paul
I have noted recently further visits by the 'Holy See, Vatican City' to the posts about the Daughters of Charity, and I imagine that there is some concern, at the highest level, about such reports continuing to appear.
It would be good to think that this was a mark of concern about the traumatised children who passed through these institutions: I suspect, however, that there is a concerted effort in hand to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church from the impact of such accounts - and perhaps defend the Order from compensation claims.
Earlier this week a damning report was published by IICSA, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, in regard to investigations into the abuse of children by those associated with the Church of England.
Amongst its findings, the following observation is made:
Faith organisations such as the Anglican church are marked out by their explicit moral purpose, in teaching right from wrong. In the context of child sexual abuse, the church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable.
This statement, in part, in its identification of the failure of religious bodies to live up to the aspirations of their own mission and core values, echoes the comment made by Lady Smith, in 2018, in findings which identified abuse at Scottish institutions run by the Catholic Order of the Daughters of Charity, as part of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.
(In 2018, a number of people were arrested and charged by Police Scotland in relation to the alleged abuses at one of these institutions, Smyllum Park).
Criticising the regime at such 'homes', Lady Smith commented:
“To children, ‘home’ should mean a safe place where they know they will find unconditional loving care provided by adults they can trust; a place they will find light whenever life outside has grown dark; a place which does not fill them with fear; a place where they will not suffer abuse.
"The provision, by the Order, of homes for the residential care of children in a way which routinely and consistently met that description would have been in keeping with their mission and with Christ’s teaching. Sadly, I have, in the light of the evidence, concluded that that did not happen.
The Order's motto is 'Caritas Christi Urget Nos'- which means 'The charity of Christ crucified urges us', or 'the love of Christ compels us'.
It is clear, however, that the vision of 'charity' envisaged in the seventeenth century by founders St Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac was betrayed, in the most profound way, in too many of the institutions run by their followers in more recent times.
The terms of the Scottish Inquiry are broader than IICSA, in that they include allegations of all forms of abuse, not just of a sexual nature. In England and Wales, it seems, only sexual abuse is now, belatedly, being taken seriously and the impact of the full scope of damage caused by other failures in care is not measured by this Inquiry, which is regrettable. One might hope that the Catholic Church would itself instigate an Inquiry into the shameful history of many of the schools and care homes - but there is no evidence they have any interest in taking responsibility for this.
Last November, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster Diocese, and the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, gave evidence to IICSA for the second time, and declared himself to be 'shocked to the core' by child sexual abuse involving members of the clergy, but stated he was 'still learning' about the issue. It seems that the idea that he should see things from the perspective of the victim or survivor had only just occurred to him, after a meeting at the Vatican with other Bishops. Understanding, for Cardinals, it seems, must only arrive via official channels, or in a moment of belated clarity, like a sacrament of faith.
'Annie' had written last year to Cardinal Nichols to ask him to instigate some sort of investigation into homes run by the Daughters of Charity. He did not reply.
The Catholic Church would no doubt, in their defence, point to the good work that has been done by the Order, and others like it, without understanding that until the unspoken legacy of abuse is recognised, and some sort of restitution made, lack of trust in the Church, as it has in Ireland, will fatally compromise what is left of its claim to serve any community in the name of God, or in the spirit of Christian values.
'Giovanni', an elderly man formerly resident in the Mill Hill Orphanage, who has lived abroad for many years, and no longer speaks English fluently, has given permission for his story to be published here, translated by a friend who has encouraged him to talk to her about his childhood. Although he was happy to use his own name, I have changed this and some other details in order to protect his identity, and shortened his account.
In its way, it represents an example of the culture of abuse, in its broadest sense, that these children were encouraged to accept as their lot: even without the sexual element, which in itself was only one terrible symptom of a wider system of control: the use of continual punishment and deprivation, of cruelty and humiliation, in order to create total submission to the authority of the Church.
The former Orphanage at St Vincent's, Mill Hill, now a luxury housing development.
"I was born in Italy in 1938. My brother Carlo was a few years my senior. When I was two my dad worked on the ships in the dockyard. One day a workmate asked him whether they could exchange shifts. My dad obliged. An accident happened on that shift, something fell down from a mast. My dad was killed. At that point my mother was pregnant with my younger brother Antonio. Soon Antonio was born, and my mum now had three boys to look after, all on her own. She struggled to make ends meet, with three mouths to feed.
A couple of years passed. Our destitution was such that mum had no choice but to leave one of us at an orphanage. The lot fell on me, since Carlo was old enough to look after baby Antonio, but two brothers would be too much for him. I was left in an orphanage. At the end of the war my mother met an English soldier, and soon got pregnant. She had no choice but to marry him and move to England. She took me out of the orphanage in Italy, to go with her to England together with my brothers, and baby Peter soon on his way. When we arrived in London, I remember there was no one to receive us, which was quite disheartening, and my mum did not speak a word of English. We had to sleep in a cheerless, dismal place, a kind of an old people’s home, on the first night.
My stepfather had neither the wish nor the means to keep his wife’s three Italian boys in his flat. Carlo was old enough to soon find work and spread his wings, but Antonio and I had to be placed elsewhere. My mum left me and Antonio at St Vincent Residential School for boys in Mill Hill when I was in my ninth year and Antonio in his seventh. This was in 1947. Antonio was placed in a ward for younger children, whereas I went with the older kids. The outdoor playground of our separate wards was divided by a fence, so from now on we could only speak to each other when outside, and across the fence. We only knew Italian and I recall being beaten by the other boys in the beginning, because I was different.
I was a quick learner. I was lucky because I had Sister R who seemed to take a liking to me and notice my efforts. I wanted so much to prove that I was worth being loved, so I tried very hard to excel at everything they asked us to do. Soon I became an altar boy. I was good at reciting Latin because of my Italian background. I was good at singing. I was given the responsibility of keeping the classroom neat and tidy. I polished the brass door handles and kept track of three dormitories. There were ten children in each of these. I was set to make sure it was quiet at the requested hour before going to sleep. I was responsible for keeping the rooms clean. I attached pieces of cloths to my knees and hands and pushed myself under the beds to sweep the floors. If any of the kids were stirring, they got a spanking from the nuns. Eventually I took that job myself. By and by I became quite popular, because I was good at football, good at cricket and good at school.
Miss Q kept night watch in the dormitories. She loathed us. She made sure it was all quiet during the night. "Who is that coughing?" "Stop coughing!" I remember I was sick and coughing, I had chronic trouble with my bronchi, and I was punished with a beating on my bare backside because I was coughing. Often, someone had done something wrong, and no one dared to come forward and admit it. We were punished collectively and told to stand on our knees with our arms raised behind our heads. This could last for 10-15 minutes, before we were released and allowed to eat.
I often sang during mass, and eager as I was, I also sang along with the priest when he was supposed to sing alone. I remember one such incident. After mass Mr P, the caretaker, came over and asked me to go and see Sister W in her office. A parcel had arrived for me, he said. Full of joy and astonishment I rushed to the office to collect it. "Come closer," Sister W demanded. "You don't sing when the priest sings". Then she handed me two mighty blows on each cheek for this serious offence. I was utterly baffled and deeply humiliated, since I had not the faintest idea I had done something wrong in the first place.
When it was Solemn Mass, some of the boys carried candles, and I was the thurifer, leading the procession, swinging a thurible with incense alongside another altar boy. When the priest was to turn wine into the blood of Christ, sometimes my role was to assist him. It happened once that I cheated a bit and made sure to spill a little on my hand so I could taste some too. After mass I was scolded by the priest and beaten about the ears: you don’t soak your fingers in wine!
We got up early in the morning and the mass was before breakfast. I remember during a morning rehearsal, Sister R was displeased because the altar boys’ responses to the priest had been faulty. If you can’t do better than this, you will not be allowed to serve at Solemn Mass. I was the best in Latin. I mumbled smugly among the other boys, "phhh I don't care”. Who said that?, A shouted. It wasn't that hard to see, because I was red as a beetroot. Forward with your hands, strike with the ruler. On your knees the rest of the rehearsal. Sister R was furious with me. You will not be allowed to be an altar boy at Easter Vigil until you apologise for your behaviour. I refused. From then on, Sister R gave me a cold shoulder and took no notice of me.
I was broken-hearted. During the breaks I stood there peeking at Sister R, pining for her attention, but she ignored me. This lasted for a long time. Closer to Easter I burst out in tears and apologised. Sister R accepted. She put me on her lap and I cried. No one else had taken over my role for Easter Mass, and I knew they needed me for this task since I performed it so well. She told me I could go on with it, now that I had apologised. Michael was a ginger haired Irish boy. When he saw me sitting on Sister R's lap, he started to tease me. I leapt at him and wanted to kill him, and someone had to come and separate us.
I remember one more episode; there was a boy who was the biggest and strongest of all, and he was going to beat me up. But Antonio my brother was now on the same side of the playground. A boy was about to attack me, ready with his fist. But what happens? By surprise, Antonio runs up and gives him one on the nose. The boy was put out of play, and I had been rescued by my little brother.
Sundays when we played outside, the nuns would ring a big bell if they had a message for one of us. Johnny, your mum has come! Every time the bell rang, Antonio and I hoped that our mum was coming to see us. We hardly ever had visitors, though. Except for my elder brother Carlo. Once he came and brought me a belt, and I was overjoyed.
My mother now had two children with her English husband, so I don’t think she had time to see us as often as she wanted to. Sometimes we would go home for holidays. We had a dreadful time, because our stepfather, Mr G, was a tyrant. We Italian boys had to stay in a room upstairs when he was home, because he didn’t want to see us, nor hear us. I remember he put our little half-brother Peter in a drawer and closed it, so that the little boy had to be locked up there in the dark for a long time. He was savage to my mum too. She was too scared to oppose his cruel ways. My mum got ill and died when I was 15, and I was glad for her, because she had such a dreadful life with that tyrant. Their two children went into charge of the social services when mum died, I think they were put in foster homes.
At the orphanage we got little food and we were often hungry after meals. I complained to the caretaker Mr P and asked him why we couldn't get more to eat. He said it was how it was supposed to be. None of us were supposed to eat until we were full. Although he tried to say it in a joking way to make me feel better, I still could not understand it.
Mr B owned the farm next door. He kept cows. He delivered milk to the orphanage. Often the milk was off because it was kept in room temperature. I hated tapioca pudding and couldn't make myself eat it. Mr B and Mr P would hold me, while Miss Q forced my mouth open and spooned the pudding into my mouth. I threw up, and got punished for that, too. We were forced to eat everything they served us.
I believe my instinct drove me to defy all the ill treatment I received. I was toughened. I was going to show them that I would not let them break my spirit, I would show them I was the best, even if I was a foreigner. So I got up, brushed it off, and made every effort to do my best, no matter what."
It is interesting, in a grim way, to note from this account, and others, that some of the characteristic details of 'discipline' handed out in the Orphanage post war were still in place when I went to the primary school years later, just as they recur in the Scottish Inquiry's investigation into the homes like Smyllum: the use of rulers to hit children; the arms above the head punishment; the regular humiliation of frightened children who wet themselves; being physically forced to eat vile food - including tapioca - leave nothing at all, or be punished, and made to drink warm milk that had gone off. Any food that was left over in the school kitchen would be taken to feed the pigs on the farm, run by an Irish farmer, tenant of the nuns, whose brood of red headed sons attended the school. I used to feel a sense of comradeship with the pigs, forced to eat such inedible slop.
But however awful the conditions for us at the school, we could go home at night. There was no one to see what happened in the Orphanage that lay behind us, but which was as separate and alien as a foreign country: a place of mystery, that no one mentioned, the children rarely seen. They were meant to be unseen.
The waxen effigy and relics of St Vincent de Paul. The chapel at St Vincent's had a similarly terrifying glass tomb, encasing the figure of a child, meant to be one of the 'Holy Innocents'.
Giovanni's friend continued the story, after he left Mill Hill: sent to a home in Essex then run by the Christian Brothers, but which had for many years been one of the Daughters of Charity's institutions. He believed that one of the Brothers regularly abused one of the boys in his dormitory, who would spend time each night in the screened off area where he slept.
At Mill Hill, 'Giovanni' learned quickly that the way to survive a childhood in the care of the Daughters of Charity was to comply with the regulations, and seek to please the one nun who seemed to care about his welfare, albeit in a way that meant failure to obey led to the instant withdrawal of her favour. Like most of the other children, he knew no other sort of home or family life, and accepted as the norm conditions which to us seem only cruel, and uncaring.
'Phil' and his brothers all left the UK, after their years in care. But they could not leave behind the years of trauma, or the damage that it had done. Time is not a great healer, in these circumstances: in later life such memories often resurface, as vivid and destructive as before. At least now, with their accounts accepted as evidence in the course of the IICSA inquiry, there is a chance of some belated justice for victims, and some sort of restitution.
I hope so, anyway.
Caritas Christi Urget Nos
Anyone who wishes to contact the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, perhaps to make their own submission of evidence, may do so here:
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