On 11th September 1969, Mr Wade from the Department travelled to Kilkenny with Mr Madden to inspect the ‘unauthorised works’ which were at that time being carried out, and about which Dr Birch and Sr Wilma19 had called to see the Secretary of the Department. Mr Wade set out the situation as far as he saw it: To fully understand how the nuns in charge of the Industrial School came to find themselves in their present plight the following comment may be of assistance. Since the appointment of Dr Birch as Bishop of Ossory there has been a convulsion in the social conscience of the laity and clergy in the Diocese of Ossory resulting in a welter of activity for the underprivileged from child adoption to geriatrics embracing also itinerants. Nuns, priest and students from St Kieran’s Seminary are involved to a greater extent than ever before among the poor and needy. A social centre has been erected on the grounds of the community, a nursery to facilitate adoption work has been approved by the Department of Health and will also be erected on the convent grounds and there are itinerants settlement schemes, meals on wheels, companions for the old etc etc. Add to this a favourable comment from a member of the Committee on the Reformatory and Industrial Schools on the standards of St Joseph’s, advance information from a member of the Committee that the group system of caring for children would be a recommendation and that grants would be available for building to assist in the changeover from the present methods and the stage was set for the nuns to run off in all directions without an Architect (except for on one item, play space and enclosed gymnasium) without authority, without money or the overdraft facilities to pay for the job.
A General Inspection was carried out on 7th November 1971; the previous one had taken place on 8th May 1970. The Inspector noted under Sanitation, Health, Food and Diet that it was quite obvious that these were given top priority by the Sisters. He found the premises in good condition, and the changeover from institutionalisation to the group home system was well underway. The staff were hard working and forward thinking. The Sisters were planning to acquire the use of another nearby house for adolescent boys, as the Resident Manager was concerned about these children. He also met and had a long discussion with Sr Wilma regarding the childcare course in Kilkenny.
From 1964, Sr Wilma lived in St Joseph’s Convent in Kilkenny and worked in Kilkenny Social Services. She had daily contact with the Sisters in the Community. She assisted in the establishment of the childcare course in Kilkenny in 1971.
He spoke with Sr Wilma and told her that the boys were being physically abused. He believed this conversation took place soon after he tendered his letter of resignation. He believed that he told her only about physical abuse, as it never occurred to him that they were being sexually abused.
After he resigned, he continued to worry about the children. He had an introduction to the Bishop of Ossory and a meeting was arranged. The Bishop was very concerned about what he was being told, and Mr Kavanagh believed that the Bishop saw Sr Astrid and the Mother Superior, and may have discussed this with Sr Wilma.
A third man, however, had been told about sexual abuse in the School. Patrick McGovern30 helped out in St Joseph’s on a voluntary basis with the entertainment in the School. He had a fair amount of contact with the School, and would call in and play music for the children. In or around 1974, a friend of his asked him to meet his daughter who was working in the School. She said to him that one of the boys was being molested in bed in the School. He understood that it was sexual molestation. He called to the convent and told Sr Wilma about this: I did, I called to the convent. It was dark, miserable weather, I can remember it well, being on the front step of the convent, there was a light over the door, it was really Dickensian, I knocked on the door and Sr Wilma came out. I knew her more than I knew the other nuns so I was glad it was her that answered the door.
He said that, after speaking with Sr Wilma, he was satisfied that nothing further would be done about the complaint: No, she made it plain to me that nothing was going on. So I respected her a great deal, I have to say that at that stage, and I was happy that what she was saying was exactly how things were, that there was nothing going on. It was only when evidence came up later that I was annoyed that I didn’t do more
Sr Wilma told the Committee that she only knew Peter Tade to see around the grounds of St Joseph’s. She remembered Donal Kavanagh, as she knew him from around Kilkenny and she knew his family. She recalled Donal Kavanagh complaining to her that Peter Tade was physically abusing the children. He did this in the context of speaking to her about doing the childcare course and, in the course of that discussion, he mentioned that Peter Tade slapped the children. She remembered telling him that he should go to Sr Astrid about it.
In her interview with the Gardaí in December 1995, she stated: ‘I picked up on it that he might have been sexually abusing them as well’. In her evidence to the Commission, Sr Wilma corrected that statement. She said she made a mistake in her Garda statement, and that she could not possibly have known about sexual abuse back in 1970 when Donal Kavanagh spoke to her. She did know about incest and men interfering with girls, but she knew nothing about men interfering with boys. She also suggested in her evidence that her statement to the Gardaí was somewhat informal, and not as formal as the signed document would suggest. It took place in her solicitor’s office.
Sr Wilma told the Committee that, back in the 1970s, if she was told that an adult was molesting a child, she would not have interpreted that as meaning some kind of inappropriate activity. Patrick McGovern gave evidence that he complained to her that one of the boys was being molested by a care worker. She had no recollection of it at all. Patrick McGovern said that her response was to dismiss it as not having happened. She said that, even if she had been told, she would have done nothing more that tell them to go to the person in charge of the Institution.
Despite running the childcare course in residential care in Kilkenny, she was living with a residential institution on her doorstep, and she knew nothing about what was going on inside it. Sr Wilma attended a number of meetings with Bishop Birch and the Department of Education. She also signed a report on proposed changes about to take place in St Joseph’s. She acknowledged that a newspaper article written by her in 1999, which asserted that she had nothing whatsoever to do with St Joseph’s, was not entirely accurate.
Sr Wilma said the idea came from Bishop Birch, and she drew up an outline for the course which was presented to the Department of Education. They agreed to fund it, and it was eventually recognised as an official qualification in residential childcare, and was also recognised by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work in London. Both she and Mr Pat Brennan31 had considerable experience in social work and working with children, but neither of them had actually worked in residential childcare.
Mr Brennan, who was the Director of the Kilkenny Diploma Course in Residential Childcare, described the course and the training it offered. The course, which ran for 10 years from 1971 to 1981, came about as a result of the recommendations in the Kennedy Report. Bishop Birch offered the Department of Education a house in Kilkenny, and the Bishop sponsored and designed the course. Mr Brennan was acquainted with Bishop Birch and was offered the job of running the course. Sr Wilma was one of the lecturers on the course on a part-time basis. Students who attended the course were sent on placements for in-house training, and St Joseph’s was one of the placement centres. He believed that Sr Wilma was the supervisor of the placements in St Joseph’s; it was considered to be her domain and, as a result, he had very little to do with St Joseph’s.
Prospective students on the course were interviewed by a panel of five, including Mr Brennan and Sr Wilma. There were normally around 50 applicants for 20 places. The requirements were: two years’ experience in residential childcare, the Leaving Certificate, three references, and two essays. He said that the issues of child sexual abuse or incest were never discussed on the course and were not on the agenda. From 1973, there was a huge preoccupation with physical abuse, mainly because of the controversial Maria Colwell case in England, where a child died in 1973 as a result of failure to protect the child in a violent family situation.