A senior figure in the Catholic Church has been accused of orchestrating a “hostile rejection” of claims nuns were involved in the abuse of children.
The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry is currently hearing evidence relating to alleged abuse at four former children’s homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth.
Yesterday a lawyer for the victims said Archbishop Emeritus Mario Conti had dismissed the allegations at Nazareth House in Aberdeen while bishop in the city, even allegedly referring to survivors as “the opposition”.
The inquiry also heard the congregation had previously denied there had been volunteers working in its establishments, despite the conviction earlier this year of a man who sexually abused three children at a home in Glasgow in the 1980s while working as a volunteer.
The Sisters of Nazareth ran children’s homes in Aberdeen, Cardonald in Glasgow, Lasswade near Edinburgh and Kilmarnock in Ayrshire until their closure in the 1980s.
The inquiry, led by Lady Smith, yesterday heard police have received 308 complaints about 194 people associated with the institutions over a 50-year period.
Two senior figures from the order, who are not the subject of abuse allegations, sat in the public gallery as former residents spoke of a catalogue of abuse, including beatings, force-feedings and humiliations administered for wetting the bed.
One former resident, known only as “Rose” and now in her 70s, described one of the nuns at Nazareth House in Aberdeen as a “witch” who would bang children’s heads together or off walls if she considered them to be misbehaving.
The woman, who lived at the home in the 1940s and 1950s, said the children were made to bath in Jeyes Fluid, a disinfectant.
Simon Collins, a solicitor representing In-Care Abuse Survivors (Incas), said there had been a refusal to believe survivors in the past which had led to “missed opportunities”.
He said: “The attitude of the Catholic Church will also feature (in the upcoming evidence), with some letters from the then Bishop Mario Conti of Aberdeen of particular interest.
“In one, while discussing arrangements for refreshments at some sort of demonstration in favour of the Sisters, he makes what appears to be a reference to survivors as ‘the opposition’.
“In another, he issues the challenge that ‘Those who call others to account for their actions must be prepared to defend their own when they make allegations.’ Such remarks were certainly felt by survivors as pressure and threats.”
He added: “It is hard to avoid the thought that the bishop’s apparent anger and energy might have been more productive at the time if it had been put into more serious investigation of allegations as opposed to hostile rejection. He would be an interesting witness in this chapter.”
David Anderson, representing the Bishops’ Conference, said it was clear that not taking matters seriously in the past had been the “wrong thing to do”.
Giving evidence on behalf of the Sisters of Nazareth last year, Sister Anna Maria Doolan admitted children had been abused and said the order was “very sorry”.
The inquiry continues.