Don’t Ever Tell: Kathy’s Story
By Kathy O’Beirne
This story of the abhorrent abuse of children in Ireland left me with far, far more questions than it answered. It is truly the most dreadful account of a child’s life – of the lives of many children, in fact – that one could read.
I went to the book to help me to understand how nuns could be cruel to children in their care. When I was a child, my exposure to religion, and the Catholic faith in particular, was limited. The behaviour I’d witnessed in a Catholic neighbour who verbally abused her husband all week and religiously went to Church on Sundays perplexed me. I thought that going to church would ‘fix’ her and I remember being disappointed when it didn’t. In my child’s mind, having witnessed such hypocrisy, I thought that Catholicism must have been a load of rubbish if that was how a devotee behaved.
As time passed, I noticed the documenting in the media of abuse perpetrated by some Catholic clergy – and by people in other religious and secular communities, and it incensed me. I understood perpetrators pursued children (and vulnerable adults) because such people were easy targets. Society’s weaker beings could be frightened into submission, threatened into keeping quiet. I understood the abusers derived a sense of power from their actions. But, at what point did a religious abuser progress from nun or priest charged with the vocation of bringing Christ into the lives of all people to child molester with the compulsion to dismiss the welfare of children and in the process destroy their lives? How did a priest reconcile the defiler he had become with the vows he had made in the seminary? Did cruel nuns and priests become abusers and paedophiles because they knew that within the Church they could conveniently atone for their sins then be free to continue to practise their evil pursuits in plain sight? Or did abusing priests become paedophiles because (for some) celibacy was expected but difficult to uphold and the vulnerable were everywhere, abundant and accessible? I wanted to know how they justified their actions.
In Kathy’s memoir, I got some answers. In Ireland, where Kathy’s story takes place, girls that were put into the system, no matter how they got there, were considered sinners, penitents, fallen girls or fallen women. They were sent to reform schools, orphanages, and Magdalene Laundries to work like slaves to atone for their sins. Likewise, boys were sent to industrial schools and then, as with the girls and women, on to mental hospitals if they spoke of the abuse.
A child may have been taken to a reform school for defiance, for a childish indiscretion such as throwing stones or not wanting to go to school, or for having a behavioural or developmental disorder that the parents didn’t understand. In Kathy’s case, her father was a sadist who, when fuelled by alcohol, went to extraordinary lengths to punish his children for no discernible wrongdoing. Kathy’s descriptions of the abuse she suffered left me astonished she survived at all, let alone that she would later develop the courage to one day tell her story. She had tried to stand up to her father with devastating consequences.
Abusers often seem to instinctively know when a child is already being exploited. They zero in on an abused child in order to violate him/her themselves. This is what happened to Kathy. She endured astonishing brutality inflicted by her father and soon caught the attention of two older boys at school who, when Kathy was seven, began raping her on a regular basis. This, not surprisingly, made her fearful of going to school. In Ireland at the time (early 1970s) it was illegal for a child not to attend school. So, the father, to avoid the shame of an errant daughter, took the distraught and anxious child to reform school to be ‘straightened out’.
The abuse intensified. When girls confined within such institutions revealed to doctors or psychiatrists that they were being belted by the nuns who were engaged to care for them or molested by priests who ministered to them, it was the girls who were punished, not the holy representatives of Christ. Were the latter above suspicion, or was it not possible in the minds of the good faithful to believe that nuns and priests could be abusers? Or was it simply the desire of the faithful to protect their church and its Holy representatives at any cost?
It is clear when we read Kathy’s story, that the children who repeatedly complained, received the most horrific punishments. As happened to countless girls, Kathy was sent to a ‘mental hospital’ where she was confined for months and injected with drugs such as Largactil to quieten her. When she perceived she might at last be believed, when she truly felt it was safe to do so, she retold her story, (to another doctor, counsellor or psychiatrist), but she was repeatedly betrayed by clinicians, either unwilling to believe her or if they did believer her, were reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ or ‘open a can of worms’. She was subsequently subjected to Electro-Convulsive Therapy. She was also injected with Ketamine for telling lies. If a child absconded from the hospital, these inhumane punishments were intensified. Kathy absconded multiple times. Even kind citizens sent her back to the institution. Good people could not be seen to be harbouring a sinner.
Throughout the 19th century provision of out of home care for children was established solely for the needs of abandoned or “illegitimate” offspring whose parents were considered socially inadequate. The concept of providing for the protection of children from their parents or from their caregivers did not exist. (Liddell, 1993). However, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in general) in Ireland did exist. It was established in 1889 and revamped in 1956. But it never featured in the lives of the children confined by the state or the Church in the institutions Kathy knew.
Add to this the fact that Ireland was, when Kathy was incarcerated, a Catholic patriarchal society, we can glean some idea why Kathy’s mother didn’t leave her husband and take the other eight children with her – and attempt to retrieve Kathy as well. Would the combined child allowance of the time have been enough to pay rent and live on even if they had got away? The reader is not made aware of why the father became an abuser, and perhaps the mother believed he would change if she didn’t ‘make waves’ but it is clear that the father needed to maintain respectability in his world – at any cost. What easier way to do this than to get rid of the squeaky wheel, the wilful child, the one he liked the least – for shewas brave enough on occasion to rebel in some childlike way, go to bed when she had been told to kneel on the cold, hard tiles for the night, hide in a cupboard, or answer back when fuelled by bravado and that, to the father, meant she was trouble.
But Kathy was only wilful when her little body became weary of trying to cope with the continuous brutal abuse; when it didn’t matter to her whether she lived or died. The father abused the most the child that was the last to follow an order. Kathy was perpetually last to follow his demands because her siblings were bigger and faster and obeyed immediately to avoid punishment. It was a truly vicious circle and little Kathy couldn’t win. Eventually the father turned all but one of her siblings against her by telling them she was ‘mad’.
This book is Kathy’s legacy. The reader hears the innocent child’s voice throughout. That is why she only had defiance as a defence. Because she was an innocent little girl who had grown to understand that telling the truth only brought upon her little malnourished body, more horrific pain. This book is Kathy’s enduring means of publicly documenting the horrific abuse of innocent women and children in Catholic Ireland.
The book isn’t particularly well written, but that doesn’t matter. Its purpose is to inform, not entertain. The tautology serves to drum into the reader that appalling and unnecessary crimes were being committed upon ordinary, good kids. Kids whose alcoholic parents didn’t want the bother of raising them, kids whose new step-parent didn’t want them, kids whose parents had died, or moved on without them, kids whose parents were inadequate carers for whatever reason, kids with developmental disorders like Autism, ADHD and speech impairments, kids who were raped by a family member (which required hushing up), kids who were unwed and pregnant and kids who were suffering mental or physical illness because of abuse exacted upon them at home or at school; such children were seen to be abnormal and in need of ‘straightening out’ and atoning for their sins. Those who ran the institutions believed that these soulless creatures couldn’t possibly be anything but worthless when their own parents had relinquished them.
Of course, there was the occasional kind carer. How they didn’t see the abuse, or confront the abusers if they did see it, is hard to fathom. Some appeared ‘just in time’ to prevent abuse but the rapists were very clever at wheedling their way out of compromising situations. And they often committed their crimes away from the institution buildings. One little friend of Kathy’s was brutalised so badly by a male nurse in the field behind the hospital that she simply disappeared one day. When Kathy asked where her friend was, she was told she was dead. Kathy had nightmares into adulthood of her friend calling her for help.
This is not an easy read. It discloses horrific ways of hurting women and children that are beyond comprehension. It exemplifies why the church and the state should be separate and why abuse that occurs within the church should not be ‘handled’ within the church. Kathy wrote countless letters and made many phone calls over the years to alert authorities of the violence and cruelty, but at best, they were given polite lip service and (the responses said,) passed on to some other relevant authority, or at worst, ignored. She repeatedly attempted to alert government ministers and the head of state about life in the institutions. She didn’t just write for the children in reform schools, orphanages and mental hospitals, but for women and children, including Kathy herself, who’d worked in Magdalene Laundries. Some women had worked in a laundry for thirty or forty years. Their bodies were so broken by exposure to the filthy sheets and by the carbolic soap and other chemicals; by the twelve hour days, six day weeks in Draconian conditions, that the only place to house them when they’d completed their years of slave labour was to condemn them to those same mental institutions which housed the children.
Kathy knew the nuns at the reformatory had lost heavily on the stock market. It was necessary for them (the Church) to sell off some of the land the school occupied. When excavation work began, the remains of 155 girls and women were found buried in a mass grave. There were only death certificates for approximately a third of them. A stone at the gravesite read Penitents. This made Kathy sick to the stomach. She knew firsthand what the Magdalene Laundries were like and that so many of the girls were lovely, good, ordinary girls like she was, or girls who’d had the misfortune to be born with a developmental disorder. At the time of publishing, Kathy was still attempting to get these poor souls recognised as women and girls, not Penitents. And the nuns cremated all the remains, presumably to prevent autopsies which might raise questions as to how the victims died.
Kathy wrote that some girls transgressed into prostitution. What else did they know? They were broken souls who had been raped since childhood by priests who stood at the pulpit on Sunday and repeatedly advised them that they’d end up in hell if they succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh. And all the while those same priests were raping those very children.
Twice Kathy received polite letters from the Taoiseach’s (Prime Minister’s) secretary stating that the country’s leader could not help in such matters. Such, I assume, was the power of the church.
Kathy O’Beirne concluded her story by describing the aftermath of the abuse for the victims. Many of the girls she knew had died, some in horrific circumstances, others were confined to mental institutions. None could erase the pain of years of abuse and injustice. This story is Ireland’s shame; Ireland’s appalling legacy. I applaud Kathy for having the courage to write it. It reveals the injustices that can occur when religion transcends humanity.
Liddell, MJ, ‘Child welfare and care in Australia: understanding the past to influence the future’, in CR Goddard and R Carew, Responding to children: child welfare practice, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1993