Priest, nuns and scoutmaster ‘abused boys’ at children’s home

Detailes of the alleged goings on at St. Francis children's home were aired publicly in the trial of former carer James McCann. PIC IAN RUTHERFORD
Detailes of the alleged goings on at St. Francis children's home were aired publicly in the trial of former carer James McCann. PIC IAN RUTHERFORD
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Three nuns, a priest and a scoutmaster were complicit in “brutalising” boys at a Catholic home in the grip of a “cruel and vindictive regime”, a court has heard.

Details of the alleged goings on at St Francis children’s home in Shefford, Bedfordshire, were aired publicly in the trial of former carer James McCann.

McCann, 80, is accused of 52 charges of violent and sexual assault on 26 boys aged between eight and 12 in the 1960s and 70s.

The allegations include the “cruel and sadistic” practice of hitting boys around the ears from behind, known to residents as The Clappers. The home, which was run by the Roman Catholic diocese of Northampton, was closed in 1974 and the alleged victims are now in their fifties and sixties.

Judge Rebecca Poulet QC told jurors that McCann was not fit to stand trial and it was therefore their job to decide the facts alone.

Prosecutor John Price QC said McCann’s activities were carried out amid a “deeply ingrained” ethos of violence and corruption.

Other members of staff were involved in abuse, including nuns and a priest named Father Ryan who was in charge at the time, the court heard.

They died before the police investigation was launched.

On what the boys recalled about life at the home, Mr Price said: “On their accounts this is not a case of a rogue violent and abusive carer operating secretly in an otherwise benign and caring environment. Quite the reverse.

“Theirs is a truly shocking story of a cruel and vindictive regime, the tone it seems being set by Father Ryan, who himself often behaved towards them in much the same way as is alleged by them against Mr McCann. There were nuns who worked at the home who do not escape blame. Members of staff appear routinely to have brutalised many of the children in a gratuitous fashion.

“Mention will be made of people called Sister Zita, Mother Xavier and Sister Realino. Were they and Father Ryan alive today, they too would undoubtedly have been suspects in the investigation that led to the charging and prosecution of this defendant.

“When Mr McCann moved into and started to work at the home in 1965, he was arriving in a place in which behaviour towards its children of the type he is alleged to have engaged in was already deeply ingrained and part of the established culture. This was a corrupt and corrupting environment.”

Mr Price told jurors that the then scout master Christopher Cahill had been accused of sex assaults by three of McCann’s alleged victims.

Earlier this year, Cahill, 74, pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting them as well as another former resident of the home, lending support to the claims against McCann, he said.

Over nine years, McCann on “very many occasions” had violently assaulted and molested boys, and dished out the punishment known by residents as The Clappers.

Mr Price said: “Allegedly deployed by McCann on countless occasions, according to the recollections of many of the former child residents, it was a strikingly similar method of what can only be described as a sadistic violent assault.

“Of the 26 complainants, 21 of them remember it happening to them.

“Mr McCann would routinely and seemingly at his whim assault children by clapping the flat of his hands simultaneously over each of their ears.

“Usually they would be required by him to stand still, hands down by their side, while he stood behind them, out of their sight; the child made to wait for the agony he knew was coming his way.

“It was a cruel act. It caused the child excruciating pain and more besides. Apart from such pain they recall nausea, dizziness, disorientation, loss of balance, an inability to stay on their feet, a temporary loss of hearing, ringing in the ears.

“Some struggle to recall specific instances of this assault happening to them, so many times was it inflicted upon them. But some of them do have a specific memory.”

One of the alleged victims described The Clappers as an “explosion of pain”.

His account read to court went on: “The pain was searing, I saw stars, there was a loud ringing in my head and I was disorientated and dizzy.”

One boy was given The Clappers for performing badly in a football match, while another was similarly assaulted on his first day at the home for ringing a bell for a dare, jurors were told.

The court heard how McCann would also beat boys with a belt or stick and had punched one of them with full force in the face.

He also forced youngsters to engage in indecent acts for his own sexual gratification in a washroom, bath and in bed, jurors were told.

When he was interviewed by police about the allegations in 2013 and 2015, McCann, of Swaffham, Norfolk, denied they took place.

Judge Poulet told jurors that McCann has Alzheimer’s disease and is now “quite unwell”, having had a number of strokes.

The trial of facts was adjourned until Tuesday.

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