Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

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We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.

The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.

Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.

So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.

The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.

As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.

That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.

A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?

Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.

It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – 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.

But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.

Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.

The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.

So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.

Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.

I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. No access to contraception also made it impossible for parents to limit their family size to a level they could manage.

But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.

The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.

King and queen of fifth class

Competition is healthy, right? The will to win pushes human beings to excel and for those with the right attributes and drive, the reward is the sweet taste of success. But too much emphasis on competition brings out its destructive force. It can distort and poison relationships, even society.

Here is an example of what a regime of competition did to a class of 10 and 11 year olds in Dublin in the 1980s. Our teacher was an old-fashioned disciplinarian who clearly missed the days of corporal punishment. He used to stalk the classroom with a metre stick and bring it crashing down on the desks of chattering children, shouting “watch out” just before he made contact.

The teacher had what Catholics call a “special devotion” to St. Teresa of Avila. Beware of anyone with a special devotion. We heard stories about her wonderful qualities – purity, humility, and obedience – ad nauseum. Enough already we would have shouted only that particular Americanism hadn’t yet reached Irish shores (nor had insubordination in the classroom).

Our school master imposed a system of continuous tests on us. Not a day went by without tests. On the wall he had meticulously put together a detailed chart where he recorded every pupil’s name and score in every single test. On a separate sheet there was a ranking of the running totals. At a glance we could see the order of achievement for all 28 children. There was no escaping it. So what did we do in this oppressive atmosphere? We became very competitive. More than that, we developed our own feudal society based on our rankings.

At the top of the pecking order came the King and Queen – the two brightest children in the class who alternated first and second place between them. The next half-dozen kids on the list were the Knights and their job was to defend the King and Queen whenever the teacher left the room and we all slipped into open animosity, expressed through ruler fights. The rest of the children were Commoners. When the teacher unwittingly seated a Commoner in the Knights’ section, he or she became a slave and had to fetch milk at break time, sharpen pencils, defend the royals and so on. Interestingly all the roles disappeared when we went out into the yard to play at lunchtime.

But inside the classroom, we stuck rigidly to the social order we had spontaneously created. Not quite Lord of the Flies but King and Queen of Fifth Class.

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.