So I’d heard. More than 30 years ago, when I was at school in Dublin. One of my friends said it to me and I never forgot.
I hoped that it wasn’t true. And it’s still possible it wasn’t. However, now it’s been said to me twice I’m beginning to think it was, especially as the second person who said it to me was Colm Begley who was at the Westbank Children’s Home with my schoolmate when he was damaged for life by falling off a train.
Since I wrote in this newspaper about the boy who had this horrific accident on the way home from my school I have been contacted by people who remember him and Westbank Home in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, where he lived.
The detail about his shoelaces being tied together when he fell out of the train was a while coming. But it made me realise I had to write about this again. Because it isn’t over, not by a long shot.
Were that boy’s shoelaces really tied together and if so, who did it? Was he thrown from the train? Why did the garda/i not investigate? Why do some Westbank survivors remember being told never to mention his name? Why can my old school not find his file? Why does no-one at the school, even very helpful teachers, remember his name? Why has no-one asked these questions before? Why haven’t I?
I have been part of the silence. That’s why I don’t join the calls for the resignation of Bishop Kirby of Clonfert who moved two abuser priests to different parishes in the 1990s because, due to what he called his “gross innocence and naivety”, he did not understand that child sex abuse was “compulsive and addictive”, but believed it was “friendship which had crossed the boundary line.”
I heard him making the comments and I thought the man sounded heart-broken at the scale of his ignorance. It is the plain truth that this entire society has only recently woken up to the reality of what Fergus Finlay called in this newspaper “the fragility” of childhood. I know this because, growing up in the 1970s, I saw children being broken. And I shut up about it all.
But, as wave after wave of abuse horror roll out of the Catholic Church, one simple fact is missed. Just as much child abuse, sexual and otherwise, went on in Protestant institutions.
As a member of the Church of Ireland who grew up in Dublin, I have always known this. But in recent times hard evidence is coming out. 219 unmarked graves of babies and children from the Bethany Home were discovered by academic Niall Meehan in Mount Jerome in 2010. The deaths all occurred between 1922 and 1949 with a spike in 1936, when 29 babies died.
The babies died of neglect. This is clear because when the home became funded by the State from 1948, the deaths just stopped. You can use this fact to exonerate the State if you wish, but it won’t do: in the 1930s the home was inspected by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer who said the babies died because they were “illegitimate” and therefore “delicate”.
Children were sent from frying pan of the Bethany Mother and Baby Home into the fire of Westbank Children’s Home. Colm Begley speaks of being beaten with an electric cable for wetting the bed, being bathed in a tin bath in front of the other inmates, being injected with unknown substances. He ate dog biscuits and soup made of dog bones.
He was not sexually abused — if you don’t count the public baths. But others were. Visitors to the home, as well as certain inmates, sexually abused the children. A visiting preacher regularly brought the boys on drives and sexually abused them.
I was telling this story to a Protestant friend and she told me the same thing had happened to her with another Protestant preacher. She had never told her parents because they respected the man so much.
Did you hear that somewhere before? Yes, it’s the same story. Celibacy is not the problem. It has been clearly shown that Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse than any other group of people with access to children.
Power is the problem. In this country we handed power over our children to (mostly) religious organisations, Catholic and Protestant. They abused many of our children, but the first failure lies with our society and our State.
This is not about the Catholic Church at all. The reason the Catholic Church is in the headlines is that, like McDonalds, it is a global brand. Small Protestant churches are more like neighbourhood diners and a fatal case of food poisoning doesn’t tarnish the whole brand.
But the main reason the Catholic Church makes news here while Protestant abuse is ignored is because the majority doesn’t want to share the story. For most it’s not about the kids at all. It’s about getting back at the Catholic Church.
So for Protestants, the tragedy continues. The records of Westbank survivors were given back to the Westbank trustees in the last two years by the HSE-funded Protestant Adoption Society, PACT. PACT told me they had “no hand, act or part” in what happened in at the home and it was up to Westbank to deal with survivors.
These records may be the only scraps of their history the survivors have. Westbank, which now has their files, took their identity. Colm Begley thought his name was Robin Mathers until he went to secondary school, when he became Robin Begley. He didn’t know his mother had called him Colm until he was 19.
One of women who managed Westbank with Adeline Mathers is still living in a house built for her behind the home and was fostering children for the HSE until quite recently. Does anyone give a toss? RTE will happily send an investigating team to Africa in the hope of finding a priest who has fathered a child, but Greystones is too far to send them to “door-step” the people who ran Westbank.
The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, has given oral and written commitments as recently as this year that the State will enquire into the Bethany Home, but nothing has happened. Bethany has not been included in Senator Martin McAleese’s inquiry into the Magdalene homes. But Westbank has been included in the North’s inquiry into institutional abuse, because of evidence that children were trafficked illegally over the Border to work for free.
Why do we in the South continue to turn our back on these Protestant survivors? Because we’re too busy making sure Catholic priests as scapegoats carry the guilt for all the shameful things we have done to children far away, out of sight.
Never asking if this country will really be a better place if all the priests disappear and there is only the social worker to call if a child dies in the night.