Sr Astrid8 was appointed to the staff of St Joseph’s one year after these events in 1955. She confirmed that she heard nothing about the circumstances that had led to so many of the children being removed and to the dismissal of an employee who had been in the School for over 30 years. She said that no protocols were in place at any time for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by the children, and the matter was never mentioned. This was notwithstanding the clear responsibility placed on the Sisters by Dr McCabe for failing to supervise the children properly. St Anne’s, Kilmacud
She maintained some contact with her friends from St Joseph’s, and has attended some reunions to see them. She does not regard it as her home nor does she go to see the nuns: she attends just to stay in touch with the girls, as they have a lot in common. Most of the girls in her set, the green set, have very bad memories but she believes that girls in other sets would have different memories. In particular she says that those in the blue set ‘were made’. The sets were segregated: every child in the green set felt they were nobodies, and she believed that was the reason why they were in that set. Most of the girls in it came from dysfunctional families. The red set was not too bad – they were ‘half right’. The blue set was a totally different scene, because they got all the extras. Sr Astrid had overall responsibility for all sets, but was specifically in charge of the blue set. Once assigned to a set, there was no possibility of moving to another.
She thought Sr Astrid would like to believe that she was close to all the children, but that was not the case. The children tried to keep in with her but Sr Astrid had her own cronies and pets, and she gave them extras.
During the rest of her period in St Joseph’s, she was part of a group known as the ‘blue set’, which had Sr Astrid in charge, assisted by a number of lay staff. There were 30 girls in the blue set, ranging from five to 16 years. Once a child was assigned to a set, it was usual for her to remain there. She cannot remember any occasion when a child was transferred from one set to another, nor does she think it would have been possible to ask for a change of set. The different sets would get together during recreation in the playground, and when they went to outside school after the age of 10 or 11. They also came together in the recreation hall for an hour or two of television, as there was only one television at that time. Each set had its own dormitories, subdivided into senior and junior, its own sitting room and refectory.
She described Sr Astrid as a very gentle person who did not slap the children. She hardly ever raised her voice to anyone. She was very good to them. The main means of discipline was to remove privileges, such as the film night or the weekly pocket money.
She has kept contact with Sr Astrid over the years. When she left St Josephs, she stayed in a house in Dublin which was solely used for the purpose of looking after the girls when they arrived in Dublin. She has attended reunions in Kilkenny every two years for the past 14 or 15 years.
She remained in the red set until she was transferred to the green set two years before she left St Joseph’s. She did not ask for the transfer, but was pleased with the move and thought there was a very good atmosphere in the green set. Sr Tilda18 was in charge and she was kind to all the children. She was older by then and was allowed a lot more freedom. The girls were friendly and she was very involved in sports. She won All-Ireland camogie medals. She believed that every opportunity was given to her to develop in St Joseph’s, and she felt she did a lot better than many children from ordinary homes. During summer holidays, she went to a befriending family who were extremely kind to her. She did her Leaving Certificate and said that anyone inclined to do so was encouraged to study and do well. Subsequently, she did a commercial course in Dublin in a private college and eventually got a good job. She thought the driving force for all of this was Sr Astrid.
Sr Astrid was asked whether she agreed with the suggestion that those who were in the ‘blue set’, which was under her immediate control, fared much better than the children in the other sets. Sr Astrid insisted that she did not treat any of the children differently. The groups were very separate. She did not accept that the blue set got things that the others did not. She said that the Superior gave all the groups the same things, but thought that perhaps sometimes someone from her own family might come and give her group extra sweets and things like that. She agreed that Traveller children could be called names by the others, as they had a lot of children round the place and name-calling was inevitable.
In the final paragraph of the memorandum of the visit, the following is recorded: Sister Astrid adverted also to problems relating to emotional disturbance among children in the Kilkenny home. It was agreed that this was a growing problem in these homes which needs consideration.
It appeared from the correspondence between Sr Astrid and Dr Paul McQuaid, Consultant Child Psychiatrist, dated 12th December 1973 that he had found that a significant number of children in care in St Joseph’s were seriously or moderately disturbed. This led to a visit to Kilkenny by a Principal Officer from the Department on 29th April 1974. He met with Sr Astrid, Resident Manager, the Programme Manager for the South Eastern Health Board, and the Bishop of Ossory. The focus of the visit was to assess the needs of the School and future trends in dealing with the problem of emotionally disturbed children in the home.
The problem with local schools came up for mention again in a General Inspection Report dated 27th January 1977 carried out by Mr Granville. He noted that, although the children attended local schools and were allowed to join in school activities, there was not good contact between the local schools and the residential home with regard to the children’s progress etc. In a handwritten note on the end of the report, it was decided that the Schools Inspector would meet the Bishop and Sr Astrid to try and resolve the education problem. The author noted that Kilkenny was by far the biggest residential home in the country, and perhaps the unwieldy size was responsible for some of the problems.
Thomas Pleece completed the course and, on completion, was highly recommended to Sr Astrid, who appointed him with sole responsibility for 16 teenage boys. He was House Parent for Summerhill, one of the group homes in St Joseph’s. According to Sr Úna O’Neill, who gave evidence to the Committee as Superior General of the Congregation: He was the House Parent for Summerhill so he would effectively have been in charge of the house. The manager would have visited as she did fairly regularly all of the houses each day and every evening. She and all concerned thought it was a great achievement to have a man in charge of the boys. In his professional child care capacity it was assumed that he would act as a father figure and role model for them.
At the end of the year, he was offered a job in St Joseph’s and took up the position in September 1972. He explained: I was approached by Sr Astrid and asked if I would be interested in taking over the group of boys in St Joseph’s, that they were going to put all the boys together and once the holidays came in June, that they would be splitting that mixed group up and changing that unit to a boys’ unit and I could take it over as the team leader there, if you like. Mr Pleece said that, although he would have had regular contact with social workers, volunteers and two other Sisters in the Community who worked in the unit, it was Sr Astrid who was most in contact with him: I suppose Sr Astrid was the one that would have had her finger on anything that was going on in the unit. You must remember that Sr Astrid was a mother figure to all of the children in St Joseph’s. The boys, I mean, idolised her. When she came over, like, it was an event every time because they all wanted to speak to her and give her a hug and whatever, you know. She was wonderful with the children.
Thomas Pleece left St Joseph’s between September 1973 and April 1974 and went to work in Drogheda, where he was offered a job which paid slightly better than St Joseph’s. He paid one visit to Kilkenny during the time he worked in Drogheda, and became aware that the children were not happy with his replacement. Sr Astrid met him and they discussed the possibility of his coming back. He agreed, provided she could match his salary in Drogheda. He returned to Kilkenny in April 1974 and remained there until 1976.
She recalled that Thomas Pleece attended the first childcare course in Kilkenny and was the first layman to do the course. She interviewed him with all the other applicants. He satisfactorily completed the course and she was sure she would have recommended him to the Sister in charge in St Joseph’s, although she did not remember specifically doing so. She recalled he was a good student and had impressed on the course. Once Thomas Pleece started to work in St Joseph’s, she had no contact with him. She may have met him once or twice in the grounds but had no real contact. In her Garda statement, she recalled he had an Alsatian dog which she was terrified of. She did not remember discussing his progress in St Joseph’s. Sr Astrid did not tell her about his dismissal or the circumstances surrounding it. She did not know why he left and never enquired about it.