Tom Peterkin: This is what we’ve learned from child abuse inquiry

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry has finally given voice to people whose childhoods were blighted by years of torment
The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry has finally given voice to people whose childhoods were blighted by years of torment
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The harrowing accounts of wrecked childhoods given to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry underline the need for justice for survivors, writes Tom Peterkin.

In recent days a solitary figure has maintained a presence outside the Scottish Parliament. He has worn a crude tabard-type garment bearing the message: “Suffer the little children ... suffer we did.”

The poignant play on Christ’s words refers to the appalling child abuse that he, and numerous others, have endured – the extent and horror of which we are just beginning to learn about.

The Holyrood vigil was being kept by Dave Sharp, who was repeatedly beaten and raped when he was a pupil at Falkland House School in Fife. Mr Sharp was marking the restarting of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry – a harrowing process which has unearthed heartbreaking evidence of extreme cruelty towards children.

Over the last few weeks, a little bit of light has been shone on some very dark secrets as a series of survivors have told their stories to the long-awaited inquiry chaired by Lady Smith.

Imagine being aged eight and having your arm broken by a nun after she found you being sexually abused by a priest.

That’s what happened to Theresa Tolmie-McGrane when she was a little girl in the Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark.

READ MORE: Religious groups apologise to Scottish child abuse survivors

Ms Tolmie-McGrane waived her right to anonymity to describe the torment she suffered when she was at her most vulnerable.

When a nun stumbled across her being abused, the eight-year-old thought her ordeal would come to an end. Instead the nun called her a whore and threw her against a wall so hard that she broke her arm.

Later another nun warned her not to report her abusive priest arguing she would be “lying to protect a man of God, so it’s okay to lie”.

Imagine a little boy throwing himself on top of his six-year-old friend to protect him against the savage beatings being administered to the youngster’s head and body.

That’s what another witness, named only as David, said he was forced to do when a nun attacked little Sammy Carr for playing with matches. Ten days later Sammy Carr was dead.

“Mind you don’t end up like Sammy Carr,” was the threat dished out by staff at the Smyllum orphanage, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul from 1864 to 1981.

Imagine a young life being reduced to a warning to other orphans. Daily beatings with hairbrushes, freezing showers, bed-wetters being forced to wear their soiled sheets, sexual assaults, electric shock treatment, mental abuse and children being force-fed porridge are just some examples of the catalogue of cruelty chronicled by survivors so far.

READ MORE: Historic child abuse review could lead to new charges

Distressingly, there have been further claims of unrecorded deaths at the orphanage including that of a 13-year-old boy, who died of a brain haemorrhage after being struck with a golf club by a member of staff. As it sifts through the wreckage of broken lives, Lady Smith’s inquiry is forcing Scotland to come to terms with a deeply disturbing past. For abuse survivors, it has been an arduous fight to get to this stage. Organisations such as the In Care Survivors (INCAS) have campaigned tirelessly for such an inquiry to come to fruition. Survivors have overcome cynicism and concerns about cost to get to this stage. The fight is far from over. Concerns remain that the inquiry, the cost of which has risen to almost £10 million, will leave some stones unturned.

The conduct of staff at 60 residential homes and schools is to be investigated, but campaigners claim many others were affected.

Moreover social work adviser, Professor Angus Skinner, has told the inquiry that the scale of abuse had been vastly underestimated, admitting: “We just didn’t believe there could be so much.”

Nevertheless the Scottish Government at least deserves some credit for agreeing that the inquiry should go ahead.

But deserving of the most credit are the people like Dave Sharp, Theresa Tolmie-McGrane and the other witnesses who have chosen to remain anonymous. They have shown courage beyond measure.

One of the many desperately sad aspects of an inquiry like this is that so many of those who have suffered will not see Lady Smith’s recommendations and any subsequent ministerial action.

Among those no longer around are doughty campaigners like Frank Docherty, who died earlier this year having devoted the latter part of his life to INCAS. Having been abandoned in Smyllum by his alcoholic parents, he endured a miserable and abusive existence in the orphanage. He did live long enough, however, to submit written evidence to the inquiry.

The evidence records that Mr Docherty was deeply moved by Smyllum children’s unmarked graves in St Mark’s Church, Lanark.

It recalled that Mr Docherty would quote an INCAS colleague Jim Kane who said: “These children had names, had friends and some had relatives. No one knows when they died and who they are because they have been completely forgotten. It is a pitifully sad sight to see so many little humps and indentations in the grass that are the only indications of their last resting places.”

Only time will tell if survivors get the outcome they deserve in terms of redress. But surely the horrifying accounts that have characterised these early hearings of the inquiry will inform how child protection can be improved in the future. That, at least, would be some sort of legacy for Frank Docherty, Sammy Carr and their fellow victims.