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Chapter 7 — Goldenbridge

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It was the quest for her parents, and in particular for her father, which she undertook in her 30s, that brought Christine Buckley to the Gay Byrne show, but during the interview she was asked about her experience of growing up in Goldenbridge in Dublin. She described abuses that she and others suffered while resident there. Immediately, phone calls came in to RTE from women and men who had had similar experiences and who wished to extend their good wishes and sympathy to her. Meetings were set up with ex-residents, and the story was picked up by most of the national media.


Stories about institutional abuse, and in particular about Goldenbridge Industrial School, continued to appear sporadically in newspapers for the following couple of years, but it was not until 1996, when the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme was broadcast, that Goldenbridge was once again the subject of intense media coverage and speculation.


Shortly after the airing of ‘Dear Daughter’, Sr Alida was interviewed on the current affairs programme, Prime Time. In the course of that interview, she admitted that she had been harsh at times, but denied that children were abused in the horrific way described in many of the headlines. According to Sr Helena O’Donoghue, ‘This denial would appear to have been almost completely ignored in the public domain and it would appear that judgment had been given’.


Shortly before the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme was broadcast on RTE, the Sisters of Mercy commissioned a professional childcare expert to write a report to assess the allegations which were being made by former residents in Goldenbridge. The Crowley Report offered little comfort to the Sisters who had commissioned it.


Mr Crowley interviewed both Sr Alida and Sr Venetia. In his report he stated: Sr. Venetia confirmed that the general atmosphere was excessively and consistently cruel even relative to standards of the time. She confirmed that fear of and actual physical beatings and verbal abuse was a matter of routine and that the general account of children, for example, waiting on the landings was accurate. Wetting was defined as a crime and, therefore, punishable through humiliation and physical beatings. Sr. Venetia confirmed the allegations in relation to the tumble dryer and drinking from the toilet cistern. She also confirmed the bead making and that failure to obey rules were normally punishable by physical beatings.


He said of Sr Alida: She was trained by Sr Bianca, whom she describes as a very large powerful woman with a harsh aggressive and unpredictable personality. On reflection Sr Alida perceives the policies and practices of the 50s and 60s as being based on ignorance and failing to understand or care appropriately for the children.


In conclusion, Mr Crowley stated: The unsafe world of Goldenbridge developed a very particular culture which could not meet the needs of children. Very powerless people had enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. Almost any kind of abusive incidents could have occurred.


The ‘Dear Daughter’ programme contained a number of very serious allegations against Goldenbridge and the Sisters of Mercy, and most of these are dealt with in the sections following on physical and emotional abuse.


After the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme was broadcast, newspaper coverage of the allegations was intensive and almost exclusively condemnatory of the Sisters of Mercy and Sr Alida. Headlines such as ‘Unmerciful Nun’s Tale’, ‘Hell on Earth for the Sin of Being Born’, and ‘Nightmarish Abuse by Sisters of Mercy’ appeared in newspapers. Former residents gave interviews on local and national radio, and allegations were recounted without any effective challenge.


Following the broadcast of the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme, a Garda investigation was undertaken, to establish whether criminal charges could be brought. There were no prosecutions, but the Garda files have been made available to this Inquiry.


On 1st July 2004, Sr Breege O’Neill, Leader of the Congregation, gave evidence to the Investigation Committee held in public on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy dealing with the emergence of allegations of child abuse in the Sisters of Mercy institutions. She spoke of the great hurt felt by the Community at the allegations that were being made, and also spoke of the enormous sacrifice made by Sisters throughout the years in aiding the poor and needy in this country. She asked that a proper and balanced investigation should take place into this whole matter.


On 15th March 2005, Sr Helena O’Donoghue made an Opening Statement at the public Phase I hearing in relation to Goldenbridge. Whilst she admitted that there was undoubtedly a regime that, by today’s standards, would be described as harsh and severe, the Sisters were not satisfied that it was an abusive regime or that children were wilfully neglected whilst in their care.


The Sisters of Mercy would not accept that the regime was cruel, abusive or neglectful. Whilst they admit that corporal punishment was the accepted means of imposing discipline, they say it was not done in an excessively harsh or extreme manner. They say that the extraordinary dedication and sacrifice of the Sisters, in caring for the poorest and most needy children in Dublin, must be taken into account when assessing the value of the work done in Goldenbridge. In particular, the Congregation does not accept the statements of Sr Venetia or Sr Alida, as quoted by Mr Crowley, as being accurate or fair.


The complainants, on the other hand, state that the regime that they were subjected to was cruel, abusive and neglectful. They say that it left them ill-equipped to deal with life when they left the Institution, and that the damage inflicted on them, either neglectfully or deliberately, has scarred them in every aspect of their lives. Complainants acknowledged the physical provision made for them by the Sisters of Mercy, but it is their evidence that the abuse, degradation and neglect that they suffered far outweighed whatever benefits they might have received by virtue of having been resident in Goldenbridge.

Physical abuse


Most complaints about physical abuse related to the administration of corporal punishment: there were allegations that it was excessive, pervasive, often undeserved, and even capricious, with the result that, in Goldenbridge, corporal punishment became the norm, and the children lived in a climate of fear. The Sisters of Mercy deny these allegations and, while they accept corporal punishment was used, submit that its use was normal by the standards of the day.

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  12. Irish Journal of Medical Science 1939, and 1938 textbooks on the care of young children published in Britain.
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  22. General Inspection Reports 1953, 1954.
  23. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963.
  24. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960.