Child abuse at St Joseph's: 'We were not responsible'

For over a decade a group of children at St Joseph's industrial school in Kilkenny were abused. The Sisters of Charity and the then Minister for Education covered up that abuse and the order of nuns now refuses to take responsibility for what happened. By Mary Raftery


Some of the most startling revelations to have emerged from the recent public hearings of the Child Abuse Commission concern an industrial school in Kilkenny, St Joseph's, run by the Irish Sisters of Charity. It is a story of a bishop writing coded notes, of references to a mysterious Sister A, of adult seminarians running around naked with young boys, of a bishop too fragile to be told that children had been sexually abused, of cover-up at government minister level – and of a nun who today expresses sorrow on behalf of her order but refuses to apologise. It is above all the tragic story of children subjected to an appalling litany of over a decade of abuse.

The Kilkenny saga also provides the only clue so far on how the courts might attribute responsibility between state and church for the abuse of children in institutions. The High Court ruled that in one case of abuse at St Joseph's the Sisters of Charity had full liability, with the state being held to bear no responsibility.

This has profound implications for the government and its negotiation of the notorious church/ state deal whereby the state is paying out over 90 per cent of the ?1bn cost of compensating victims of child abuse at institutions, with the religious orders contributing less than 10 per cent.

To understand what happened at St Joseph's in Kilkenny, one must go back to the mid-1960s. There exists a piece of old, black-and-white RTÉ footage which shows a group of about 20 small boys, all under six, gathered at the door of a large, institutional-type building. The boys look happy enough and some are clasping buckets and spades. They are inmates of St Patrick's industrial school in Kilkenny, also run by the Sisters of Charity. They are about to go on a trip to the seaside.

In the knowledge of the rape and torture to which several of these boys were shortly to be subjected over a number of years, the footage is searingly tragic.

Soon after this piece of film was shot, St Patrick's was shut down as an industrial school for boys under 10. Those children aged between four and six were transferred up the road to another Sisters of Charity industrial school, St Joseph's, which had previously catered only for girls. The boys, 32 of them, were initially accommodated in two large rooms, where they ate, slept and played.

At one stage, reports of the behaviour of a group of four students from St Kieran's seminary in Kilkenny came to the attention of the head nun at St Joseph's, Sr Joseph Conception O'Donoghue. These students had been brought into the industrial school to supervise the boys during the night.

In 1995, Sr Conception made a statement to gardaí as part of their investigations into a series of child abuse allegations against several individuals employed at St Joseph's during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the incidents Sr Conception deals with concerns this group of students. According to her statement, she was told that the students and the children they were supervising "were running around naked".

She reported the matter to a local garda who did occasional voluntary work with the children at St Joseph's. He told a local priest, who in turn informed the Dean of Students at St Kieran's. Sr Conception took no further action. She states that the students did not return to the industrial school, and adds, "I didn't mention this incident to anyone."

This was merely the first of a long list of incidents and reports of abuse or suspected abuse at St Joseph's. One of the boys' earliest carers at the institution, Teresa Connolly, assaulted them both physically and sexually. She was convicted for this abuse in 1999.

By 1971, with the boys getting older, the nuns were keen to employ a man to look after them. That year, the first childcare course in Ireland was organised. It took place in Kilkenny and was run by Sister of Charity Stanislaus Kennedy. Its first graduates emerged in 1972, and among them was David Murray. He was immediately employed by the nuns at St Joseph's. They were delighted that the boys would now have a father figure to look up to.

In 1997, Murray was sentenced to 10 years in prison for buggery and acts of gross indecency on a number of the boys. Judge Matthews stated at the trial: "Never in the history of childcare in this state has one childcare worker caused so much damage. If these sad facts teach us anything, it is that we must listen to those who cannot and have not in the past been heard."

Murray had spent over three years terrorising the children at St Joseph's. They describe how he would come to some boy's bed almost every night and anally rape him. He would set his Alsatian dog Thunder on the children. Even the nuns were terrified of the dog. He threatened to kill the boys if they told anyone what he was doing to them.

He took one boy, Raymond Noctor, out of his bed in the dead of night and brought him outside to a cabbage patch. He told Raymond that he would bury him there if he talked.

However, displaying remarkable courage, a number of the boys, including Raymond Noctor, did tell. They complained to the head nun, Sr Conception, among others. They have always maintained that they told her about the sexual abuse. She has repeatedly denied this, saying that her understanding of their complaints was that David Murray was merely being hard on them.

According to her Garda statement during the investigation of Murray's crimes 20 years later in 1995, she does accept that Raymond Noctor came to her in the mid-1970s and told her that Murray was "at the boys". She claims that she understood this to mean "nagging at them and giving them the odd slap".

In her Garda statement, Sr Conception describes children in severe distress, several of them running away, and all complaining about Murray. Her response was to tell him not to be so hard on the boys. It was only in 1976, when another individual told her that Murray was "abusing the boys", that she says she realised "something serious was going on".

David Murray was then fired by Sr Conception. However, it was revealed at the public hearings of the Child Abuse Commission last May that she did Murray one last service. The commission heard that in 1979 Murray secured a job looking after children at Scoil Ard Mhuire in Lusk, Co Dublin, a reformatory school for boys.

As a routine matter, the Lusk school asked Sr Conception for a reference for Murray, as she was a previous employer. The nun obliged, sending back the details of Murray's employment record at St Joseph's. She made no reference to him being fired for abusing the children.

Sr Una O'Neill, the current superior general of the Sisters of Charity was asked at the commission hearings why no attempt was made to warn the Lusk school about Murray's record of abuse. She was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.

What makes this particularly egregious is that David Murray continued his rampage of child rape at Lusk during 1980 and 1981. It was not until 20 years later, in 2001, that he was convicted for the buggery of one child at this institution and on six counts of indecent assault and three of gross indecency. Described by Justice McCartan on this occasion as "evil and dangerous", Murray received a further 10-year jail sentence.

Back at St Joseph's, Kilkenny, in 1976, Sr Conception set about hiring another male childcare worker to replace David Murray. She employed an Englishman by the name of Myles Brady.

Brady was an extraordinarily violent man and had a problem with drink. He was known as 'whiskey-breath' by the children. He beat them frequently with hurley sticks and anything else that came to hand. He also sexually abused several of the boys.

In early 1977, another childcare worker at St Joseph's, Edward Murphy, complained to Sr Conception about Brady's treatment of the children. He was fobbed off. The nun has since said that she did not take his complaint seriously as he was only a trainee at the time.

With a highly commendable dedication to the welfare of the boys, Edward Murphy took the matter further. He approached the most high-profile nun in Kilkenny at the time, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy. Sr Stan was then running both the childcare course and the Kilkenny social services programme, an enormously progressive operation organised in conjunction with the Diocese of Ossory and the local bishop Peter Birch.

Edward Murphy has said that he was not aware that Brady was sexually abusing the boys – his complaint related to physical abuse. Sr Stan has repeatedly stated that she knew nothing of sexual abuse at St Joseph's until she was contacted by gardaí during their 1995 investigation into the crimes of Myles Brady and David Murray.

In the 1970s Sr Stan was the country's leading expert in childcare. Her understanding of her meeting with Edward Murphy is expressed in the statement she made to gardaí in 1995.

In this statement, signed by her in the presence of her solicitor, she stated Edward Murphy "complained to me that Myles Brady was physically abusing the children. I picked up on it that he might have been sexually abusing them as well. I told Eddie Murphy to tell Sr Conception. Eddie Murphy came back to me and said the children were going to tell the guards. Eddie Murphy either [said] the children are going or have gone to the Guards. I can't be exactly sure of what Eddie Murphy said. Eddie Murphy left St Joseph's shortly after that and Myles Brady also left. Eddie Murphy was very upset when he told me about Myles Brady."

Sr Stan also stated that she had a "vague recollection" of another individual, a local man from the town, complaining to her about the treatment of the children at St Joseph's. However, she adds later in her Garda statement that "with regard to what happened in St Joseph's you simply did not ask. I knew nothing about the running of St Joseph's."

We know that Sr Stan did not at any stage discuss these complaints with the head nun of St Joseph's, Sr Conception, not even after Edward Murphy's resignation in protest. His resignation letter stated that the situation concerning Myles Brady was "highly undesirable and unsafe".

We also know that Murphy informed Bishop Birch of the abuse of children at St Joseph's. The Child Abuse Commission was told that a copy of Murphy's resignation letter was found in diocesan files. The commission also discovered a cryptic note in the files, handwritten by Bishop Birch. This was displayed on screen at the commission hearings. It read as follows:

"Ed approached Sr. A to talk to boys re drunkenness etc. She promised to look into it.

2. She talked to boys one and a half hours, was shocked by what heard.

3. She asked B to stay off when off.

4. Some days later off duty beat a boy badly.

5. Ed threatened to resign. Offer of alternative job. Ed wants investigation, offer withdrawn.

6. Mr Granville investigating (Ed told) and had seen Ed's letter.

7. Phoned Mr. Granville – knew nothing of it."

A number of aspects of this note are intriguing. Firstly, it is interesting that the bishop should have felt the need to be so coded in his references to particular individuals. The Child Abuse Commission appeared satisfied that the "Ed" referred to is Edward Murphy, and that "B" is Myles Brady. The identity of "Sister A", however, remains unknown. It was stated that she is not Sr Conception. Since we are aware of only one other nun who was informed of Brady's abuse of the children, namely Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, it is possible that she is the "Sister A" referred to here. It is also interesting that Bishop Birch should record that Brady "beat a boy badly". There is nothing to show that either the bishop or the mysterious Sister A took any serious action on foot of this or any other complaint made to them.

Finally, the reference to "Mr Granville". He was the Department of Education's inspector of industrial schools at the time. He has consistently denied that he was ever informed of the abuse of children at St Joseph's, despite claims from Sr Conception that she told him. Bishop Birch's note would appear to support Mr Granville in this. However, it is not recorded if Granville took any action on foot of the bishop's own phone call on the matter, although we have no knowledge so far of what exactly the bishop told him.

And there matters lay for a few months. Edward Murphy had resigned, but from the point of view of the nuns and the bishop, the situation had been contained. Myles Brady continued exactly as before. There was no relief for the boys from his beatings and sexual assaults.

Then, in June of 1977, five months after Murphy's resignation, all hell broke loose. One of the boys of St Joseph's invited a classmate back to the institution for tea one evening. Myles Brady brought this boy, then aged 12, into his room and sexually assaulted him.

Some weeks after the abuse, the boy was found by his mother sticking pins into a photograph of Brady. He then told his family what had happened. Sr Conception was informed shortly afterwards. She persists in her claim that she did not understand the complaint she received to refer to sexual abuse. She nonetheless took immediate action.

Myles Brady had gone to Dublin for the weekend. Sr Conception contacted local garda John Tuohy, and together they went to Dublin to confront Brady. The Child Abuse Commission heard that Tuohy unambiguously informed Brady that the allegation against him was one of sexual assault of a child. Brady admitted the abuse, was fired on the spot and told never to return to Kilkenny.

Tuohy made a report to his superiors on the matter, but no prosecution was taken against Brady at the time as there was no direct complaint from the victim. It is, however, interesting to note that Tuohy, who later became a sergeant, was central to the 1995-1997 investigation and conviction of the succession of paedophiles who worked at St Joseph's.

Myles Brady pleaded guilty in 1997 to several counts of sexually assaulting a number of children and received a four-year prison sentence. He died in 1999.

In 2003, in what became known as 'The Visitor Case', the boy (now an adult) from the town who had been sexually abused by Brady took a civil action against both the Sisters of Charity and the Department of Education. He had emigrated to Spain and had been deeply traumatised by the abuse. He had at one stage attempted to take his own life.

Unlike most victims of abuse at children's institutions, this man was not entitled to seek compensation from the Residential Institutions Redress Board, as he was only a visitor to the school and not an inmate.

Equally, the case did not come within the definition of the state indemnity provided to religious orders as part of the church/state deal. Consequently, this was to be the first time a court would be able to assess the relative responsibilities of the state and the religious orders who ran the industrial schools.

Although the Department of Education and the Sisters of Charity were co-defendants in the action, they fought hard to attach as much blame as possible to each other. Justice Kevin O'Higgins' judgement in the High Court was startling. He found the Sisters of Charity, as managers of the institution concerned and as the employer of Myles Brady, to be 100 per cent liable for the damages of ?75,000 awarded to the plaintiff. The judge's conclusion that the state had zero liability flies directly in the face of the church/state deal, in which the government (ie the taxpayer) has shouldered 90 per cent of the compensation payout to abuse victims.

While it has been pointed out that there are certain unique features to this case, most notably that the victim was not in the care of the state as a child, it is worth examining exactly what Justice O'Higgins said in his lengthy and carefully argued judgement. His conclusions have much wider implications in terms of defining the relationship between state and church in the running of the industrial schools:

"The roles of the department and of the managers [ie the religious orders] are clearly delineated in the Children's Act, 1908. Although Sr Joseph Conception stated: 'We were totally accountable to the Department of Education,' this does not accurately reflect the large level of autonomy in the running of the institution given to the managers and provided for in the statutory framework. The role of the department... 'to certify, to inspect, and to advise' more accurately describes the reality of the situation. In those circumstances... I do not think that in the context of this particular case the Minister [for Education] can be made liable for the assault, the subject matter of these proceedings."

In the light of the deeply shocking litany of abuse suffered by the boys of St Joseph's, it is difficult to comprehend the attitude of Sr Una O'Neill in her testimony to the Child Abuse Commission in May. As head of the Sisters of Charity, she appeared unwilling to commit herself to an apology to the children so grievously injured while in the care of her order.

"If an apology were in anyway to link us with the David Murrays and Myles Bradys of this world then in no way would an apology be given," she told the commission. She added that her order expressed regret and sorrow that children were abused, but she did not accept that the nuns shared any responsibility for that abuse.

A constant refrain of the Sisters of Charity has been that they had no knowledge or awareness prior to the late 1980s of even the existence of such a phenomenon as child sexual abuse. They repeated this as recently as the 1990s, when evidence emerged that several of the children at Madonna House in Dublin, run by the order, had been abused by a maintenance man employed by the nuns. In fact, as a result of evidence presented at the Child Abuse Commission's public hearings, it is now possible to trace this order's detailed knowledge of child sex abuse back as far as the mid-1950s.

Sr Una O'Neill was questioned at the commission about an extraordinary incident which occurred at St Joseph's Kilkenny in 1954. The nun in charge at the time had applied to the Department of Education for permission to transfer a number of girls to a reformatory in Limerick. The children were described as having misbehaved.

The department's medical inspector of industrial schools, Anna McCabe, became curious and paid a visit to St Joseph's in Kilkenny. She interviewed the girls and discovered that nine of them had been sexually abused by a house-painter employed by the nuns. When the head nun was confronted with this by Anna McCabe, she admitted it was true.

Up to this point, the Department of Education cannot be faulted – it did its job properly by unearthing serious crimes against children, crimes which had not been reported to anyone by the nuns in charge. However, what followed can only be construed as a clear obstruction of justice.

A comprehensive cover-up was organised. A meeting was arranged, attended by the superior general of the Sisters of Charity, two senior Department of Education officials, the local parish priest Fr O'Keefe, and the nun in charge of St Joseph's. At the urging of Fr O'Keefe, it was agreed that the matter would not be reported to gardaí. It was also decided not to inform the bishop, who was apparently too old, too frail and too deaf to be told. The cover-up was sanctioned at the highest level by the Minister for Education, Fine Gael's Richard Mulcahy.

The Kilkenny paedophile was simply dismissed from his post. He was never charged with any offence. As to the girls, some were transferred, others remained in Kilkenny. There was no evidence presented at the Child Abuse Commission public hearings of any particular concern being evinced for their welfare or for the trauma they had suffered.

It seems that no child protection measures were put in place by the Sisters of Charity on foot of their direct experience of such a serious occurrence of child sexual abuse in the 1950s. Instead, every effort was made to suppress all knowledge of the incident. By burying their heads in the sand with such single-minded determination, the nuns were destined to repeat their appalling mistakes throughout the 1970s in Kilkenny and during the 1980s and 1990s in Madonna House, with tragic consequences for the dozens of boys and girls so savagely robbed of their innocence and their childhoods by a seemingly endless succession of paedophiles employed by these religious sisters.

By refusing even today to acknowledge their share of responsibility for this abuse, the Sisters of Charity continue to abuse those they failed to protect as vulnerable children in their care. And through its extraordinarily generous indemnity deal, the state continues to protect the nuns from the consequences of their negligence.



Sr Stan responds

I have read Mary Raftery's article and consider it to be very selective, subjective and biased. However, having been invited to respond to the article as it relates to me I am confining myself to that.

I have stated publicly before that I did not know about sexual abuse in St. Joseph's Kilkenny in the 70's or 80's. In addition I did not know anybody else who knew about sexual abuse in St. Joseph's. However, for the record, let me state the facts again.

Eddie Murphy, the former childcare worker at St. Joseph's, confirmed in a letter to The Irish Times (December 1999) that I could not have known from him about sexual abuse at St. Joseph's, because he himself did not know about it at that time either. When I was interviewed by the Gardai eighteen years later in 1995, I was speaking with the benefit of hindsight. Any fair-minded person would acknowledge that there was a vast difference between the public awareness and discussion of sexual abuse during the 1970's and today.

In the only part of the article where Mary Raftery is complimentary about me, she is also inaccurate. I was not 'running' the Kilkenny Social Services programme or the Kilkenny Child Care course. She also greatly exaggerates my standing in the world of childcare. I was certainly not the 'country's leading expert in child care'.

I never worked in St. Joseph's orphanage. I am not the 'Sister A' referred to in Mary Raftery's article, nor do I know the person to whom that referred.

Terrible things happened to some of the boys in St. Joseph's. For me, as for all the Sisters, it is a source of unending sadness and profound regret that the trained lay childcare workers we employed, in a sincere attempt to improve conditions, were responsible for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the children in our care. This is the dark side of the history of St. Joseph's, but there is another side. Very many of the former residents of St. Joseph's and their families are still in regular contact with the Sisters of Charity and remember St. Joseph's as a place where they were reared, loved and cared for – a place they remember fondly as 'home'.

May I repeat once more: I did not know of sexual abuse in St. Joseph's until it became a matter of public knowledge during the Gardai investigations in the 1990's.