Suffering in Swiss children’s homes

This is an article I wrote published on swissinfo.ch last week. It was a very sad story to cover as it tells of the ill-treatment of vulnerable children. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a lot more money in Switzerland and the whole approach to childcare and education began to change dramatically. In children’s homes, the pavillion system was introduced where small groups of up to 15 children would live in a family-type setting with the same carers. A far cry from the scores of children who were under the care of poorly-trained and overworked nuns in previous decades.

But unmarried mothers and their children as well as poor families and Swiss gypsies continued to suffer at the hands of the authorities well into the 1970s and even 1980s. The prevailing policy was to split families up rather than support them. I can post more about that later but for now, here is the story of the Ingenbohl sisters, the thankless unpaid job they did and the joint blame they, the authorities and society share for the damage done to children in their care.

Nuns admit to past mistakes in children’s homes

by Clare O’Dea in Brunnen, swissinfo.ch
Jan 23, 2013

An independent investigation into allegations of abuse at children’s homes run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy has found serious failings by the Roman Catholic nuns but has discounted the worst allegations involving deaths in care.

The excessive punishment doled out by some sisters was mainly due to the “systemic misery” of the homes, where both children and carers experienced hardship, the commission of experts found in its review of the decades from 1928 to the 1970s.

The commission, mandated by the Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross two years ago, presented a 220-page report of its findings at the mother house of the order in Brunnen in canton Schwyz on Wednesday.

Under the chairmanship of lawyer Magnus Küng, the commission set itself the task of finding answers as to why a significant number of children were “so defencelessly abandoned to their tormentors”.

“Not only the authorities, the bodies who carried out inspections, and the management of the homes clearly bear their share of the institutional blame but also the leadership of the [religious] community. Many questions still remain about the guilt of individuals,” Küng said.

Punishments

Of the 55 former residents of 16 different children’s homes who came forward with their testimonies, more than a quarter had predominantly negative memories, 13 mixed and 60 per cent positive.

The punishments the former residents recall include beatings, being held underwater, being forced to eat up vomited food, being denied food and being locked up in the dark.

A former resident of a children’s home in canton Fribourg, staffed by Ingenbohl sisters told swissinfo.ch that the seven years she spent in their care were “dreadful”.

“Once a nun pulled me to the ground by my hair and a clump of my hair stayed in her hand. They held my head under water. They treated all the children in the same way. We were traumatised,” said Michèle Gillard-Loubhane.

The commission also interviewed 23 nuns born between 1917 and 1943 who worked in a total of 22 different homes countrywide. None of them recalled carrying out or witnessing excessive punishment.

Hard times

The experts, who include a former judge, an education expert, a historian and a psychologist, accept that “in different homes there were those who systematically visited abhorrent suffering on the children”. But they also point out that that there were nuns who did their best for the children under the most difficult circumstances.

Society also turned its back on these children, for the most part from broken homes. “They went in stigmatised and they came out stigmatised,” historian Carlo Moos told swissinfo.ch.

Psychologist and commission member Beatrix Staub-Verhees described the working conditions of the nuns she interviewed, some of whom worked for more than 30 or 40 years in numerous homes.

“The further back you go the more difficult the working conditions were: long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.”

The mother superior of the Ingenbohl sisters Marie-Marthe Schönenberger has issued a blanket apology to those badly treated in the care of her order.

“With sadness and great regret we confirm that in individual cases our fellow sisters acted inappropriately in the work of looking after the children,” Schönenberger said.

“We are sorry for the suffering caused by our behaviour as individual sisters, as the leadership of the order and as a community,” she added.

Unclear

Accepting that sexual abuse was a reality in children’s homes to some extent, the commission could not shed any light on the role of the nuns in any confirmed cases of sexual abuse. It found no “robust proof either for or against the assumption that nuns also [sexually] attacked children.”

Accusations against sisters in different homes at different times do exist but could not be adequately verified so long afterwards, partly because of the “unmentionable” nature of such offences at the time and the lack of any contemporary documentation.

The issue of ill-treatment of children at Ingenbohl-staffed homes first hit the headlines in 2009 when excerpts from the memoirs of a former girl resident of the Rathausen home in canton Lucerne were published in which the woman blamed the death of her sister and that of another child on the violent actions of a named nun.

The diaries, found in the woman’s attic after her death claimed that her sister Bertha Bucher, aged 13, died in 1928 from a head injury two weeks after a beating by Sister Ursula and that the cause of death given was a fall from a swing.

The commission found that there was insufficient evidence to connect the alleged beating to the girl’s death but said the home had acted negligently in not seeking medical care for the seriously ill child in the days leading up to her death from meningitis.

The same woman also recorded the case of a boy called Paul Wildi who, she wrote, died after being thrown down the stairs by the same nun. Investigators found that this information was incorrect. Paul Wildi died in hospital of meningitis.

Allegations of three cases of children who committed suicide in the 1940s, as described by a former home resident in Rathausen were found to be groundless. The man claimed in 2011 that the three had killed themselves as a consequence of abuse in the home.

Switzerland has changed beyond recognition since the peak era of the Ingenbohl sisters around 1940 when they had 2,461 sisters living and working in 300 locations of different kinds in Switzerland.

“The absolute truth can never be established, but with this report we have come a significant step closer to the truth,” Küng said.

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