Yes, the evidence is harrowing. But it proves why the child abuse inquiry is so important.
By Graham Grant
IN an anonymous office block near Haymarket train station in Edinburgh, an inquiry is slowly unravelling one of the biggest scandals of our time.
Its exact parameters are as yet unknown, but the catalogue of human cruelty already spans decades – and is jaw-dropping in its scale.
Allegations of ‘institutional’ child abuse are being subjected to forensic scrutiny by chairman Lady Smith, a High Court judge, and her team.
There have been extraordinary claims of Satanic sex rituals and violent attacks by nuns who were meant to be caring for vulnerable children.
Dogged by controversy in its early stages, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI), launched in 2015, has had a troubled genesis, and so far has cost nearly £10million.
The bill is certain to soar further, and even some of the survivors who lobbied for the creation of the statutory probe have raised questions over the price-tag.
Some are angry that so much cash has been swallowed up while victims are for now denied financial redress, and indeed many older, or sick, survivors may die before it is granted.
It is not surprising that the public are sceptical of inquiries, which have become a kind of knee-jerk ‘get out of jail free’ card for politicians across the UK.
At the slightest whiff of acrimony, it seems ministers are all too keen to instigate an inquiry to buy themselves time – during which they hope the controversy will subside.
The SCAI is different because it took so long to set up, and because there is considerable risk for any government which launches such a lengthy and costly process.
Aside from the rising cost, there is also the growing expectation that when it is completed, the state will be roundly condemned for indirectly delivering children into the hands of abusers.
There is also the suspicion for many that victims who have come forward are simply looking for compensation, and that this in some way invalidates or undermines their claims.
This is a curious argument because compensation is the very least many of them are due, given the shattered childhoods they endured, and the lasting psychological – and physical – legacy of their abuse.
I have watched the SCAI hearings and listened to harrowing evidence from a succession of witnesses for whom compensation is simply not a priority.
Last week one former resident of Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark said being able to give evidence – as his children looked on – was a kind of ‘exorcism’.
For Dr Theresa Tolmie-McGrane, who testified that she was sexually abused by a priest then had her arm broken by a nun, it was a chance to show she was no longer afraid of her former tormentors.
Another witness, William Connelly, said he had forgiven the nuns, and found out from the inquiry’s senior counsel that one of them was still alive (and denied the allegations against her).
It was a moment of dramatic revelation, as he had believed those responsible for his abuse after he entered Smyllum in 1958 were dead.
But he insisted he did not want ‘revenge’ – rather he hoped for an apology.
Such was his need for answers, that he expressed his disappointment that the lawyer representing the order which ran Smyllum did not want to challenge his evidence.
That order – the Daughters of Charity St Vincent de Paul – has insisted that ‘our values are totally against any form of abuse and thus we offer our heartfelt apologies to anyone who suffered any form of abuse in our care’.
Sister Ellen Flynn, leader of the order in Britain, was asked about alleged abuse at the home back in June, and claimed the allegations were a ‘mystery’.
Asked by Lady Smith if the order had considered that the abuse claims may be ‘well-founded’, Sister Flynn replied: ‘There’s always a possibility.’
Since then, the inquiry has heard from a steady stream of victims who say their lives have been wrecked by Smyllum.
John Scott, QC, senior counsel for In Care Abuse Survivors, has said that ‘the Smyllum way became shorthand for wicked abuse’.
There have been allegations that a child, Sammy Carr, died aged six in 1964 soon after he was repeatedly kicked in the head by a nun.
At least 400 children from Smyllum are thought to be buried in an unmarked grave at Lanark’s St Mary’s Cemetery.
Perhaps the most striking finding of the inquiry is the apparent failure of the authorities, whether social workers or police, to intervene when allegations of abuse were made.
Some children found that when they raised the alarm with police, word found its way back to the nuns, who then meted out vicious reprisals.
In some cases, the nuns are said to have convinced officers that the child in question had an ‘overactive imagination’.
These claims of official indifference to what one witness described as ‘crimes against humanity’ are utterly chilling.
In one case, Lady Smith criticised police for failing to contact a religious order to tell the order a man was on trial for abusing children in its care, and to ask for records – asking police whether they had tried Googling the order’s number.
But it has also been moving to see so many witnesses who, despite their ordeals, have attempted to build stable family lives, and have been able to overcome the multiple traumas of their past.
They can be reassured of the inquiry’s resolve – last week, a witness called Jimmy warned Lady Smith of the difficulties of taking on the Catholic Church: ‘I’m telling you now, you will not beat them … good luck.’
Lady Smith’s reply was swift: ‘Give us a chance, Jimmy!’
As a signal of intent, this may prove worrying for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Scotland.
The Church said earlier this year there was ‘an overwhelming sense of shame that these abhorrent crimes have occurred’ involving children who were in its care.
It is also coming under pressure (as the church is globally) to compensate victims, a move it has said it is already considering.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the SCAI’s work is that, to some extent, it is has only just begun.
There are several other religious orders also implicated in the abuse scandal, while the SCAI is examining claims of abuse at some of the country’s top private schools.
True, some of those responsible for the suffering of children in care over the decades may never be brought to justice in the courts, because they will have died, or due to legislative barriers.
For that reason, many critics will continue to regard the SCAI as an expensive waste of time.
But if it provides a powerful platform for victims to tell their stories – and saves children from the clutches of abusers in the future – then there is no doubt it will have proved its worth.