The children taken to the notorious Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanarkshire, Scotland, came from poor, working-class families and broken homes. About 11,600 children passed through the institution from its opening in 1864 through its closure in 1981, left in the care of an order of Catholic nuns.
Former residents have detailed allegations of being brutally beaten, kicked in the head, neglected and publicly humiliated by the orphanage’s staff and being forced to take freezing cold showers, according to British and Scottish news outlets. One former resident’s physical and psychological abuse was described in the Scotsman newspaper as “hideous treatment at the hands of nuns.”
For many years, an unknown number of children were believed to have died in the home, but exactly how they perished — and where they were laid to rest — remained a mystery.
Then, in 2003, two former residents uncovered a troubling discovery: an overgrown, unmarked burial plot at a nearby cemetery, which they believed might be filled with the bodies of children. The religious organization that ran the home, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, confirmed that Smyllum residents were indeed buried there, according to the BBC and Scottish newspapers. In 2004, the group said records suggested that 120 children had died at the orphanage, and their remains were buried in 158 compartments in the plot, located about a mile from Smyllum, at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lanark.
But the two former residents who found the unmarked graves believed the number of children buried was much higher. It turns out, they may have been correct. According to a lengthy joint investigation by the BBC and Scotland’s Sunday Post published Sunday, up to 400 children are believed to be buried in the mass grave.
By sifting through archived death certificates, the BBC and Sunday Post found 402 certificates listing Smyllum as the place of death or normal residence. After checking with surrounding cemeteries and local authorities, the reporters found only two of those 402 were buried elsewhere, according to the BBC.
Based on the death records the reports cited, an average of one child died every three months at Smyllum. In some periods, the recorded death rate was about three times the average for children in Scotland, the Guardian reported. Most of the children died of natural causes, including diseases such as TB, pneumonia and pleurisy. About a third of those who died were age 5 or under, the BBC reported.
The revelations evoked comparisons to a home for mothers and children in Tuam, Ireland, where a forensic examination revealed 17 underground chambers containing “significant quantities of human remains,” the remnants of young children of “unwed mothers” dating from 1925 to 1961. Estimates have put the number of bodies at Tuam at 700 to 800.
“The true scale of the horrors of Smyllum long hidden by the Roman Catholic church are only being now revealed,” the organization White Flowers Alba, which advocates for survivors of the orphanage, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
In an interview with The Post, the group’s founder, Andi Lavery, said the residents at Smyllum were given a stipend from the Scottish government for food and proper medical treatment. Lavery said he read the death certificates cited by the BBC and Sunday Post, and said many causes of death included malnutrition and blunt trauma to the head.
“Why should they be dying from starvation? Why should they be dying from treatable infections? Why should they be dying from beatings?” Lavery said. He said he is currently working with about 20 of the home’s remaining former residents, but has heard from more than 100 survivors over the years.
“The kids were put in sacks and thrown in the ground in the hole,” Lavery said. “They were harshly beaten and quite a large number were sexually abused.”
The Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent DePaul, which ran the home, refused to comment on the findings, according to both reports.
The allegations of abuse at Smyllum are currently the subject of an investigation by the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. The inquiry team, set up by the Scottish government in 2015, is investigating 60 institutions in Scotland, including religious order-run orphanages like Smyllum and top private schools. The team is expected to produce a report in 2019 with its findings and recommendations.
At an inquiry hearing this summer, Sister Ellen Flynn, head of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent DePaul in Great Britain, said the group could find “no evidence” in its records substantiating the abuse allegations, according to a transcript.
Flynn said if the allegations were to be proven, it would be “inexcusable,” but that “it is a mystery at the moment.”
“We are extremely saddened that those accusations have been made, that there are allegations,” Flynn added. “We are shocked at the thought that there may have been and are very apologetic.”
The inquiry also heard that in the early part of the century it had been “common practice” to separate siblings.
Following the BBC and Sunday Post reports, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Scotland told Scottish newspaper the National that a “full investigation” should be made into the allegations.
“The death of children in care is always tragic,” the spokesperson said. “Any suggestion that the deaths of some children were caused by anything other than natural causes should be investigated to the fullest extent possible.”
“The Catholic Church has never had any responsibility for or ability to place children in care — that has always been and remains a matter for the statutory authorities who placed children in care and were subsequently responsible for their welfare,” the statement continued.
Among the deaths recorded at the orphanage was that of Francis McColl, whose death certificate says he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1961, at age 13, the BBC reported. His brother, Eddie, told the BBC the cause of death affirms what he had previously heard — that his brother had been hit on the head by a golf club.
While the graves of nuns and staff members from the school are marked with headstones in St. Mary’s Cemetery, the graves of the children are not, Lavery said.
One of the two former residents who uncovered the unmarked graves was Frank Docherty, who died in April of this year, at 72. Docherty, founder of a group called In Care Abuse Survivors, served as a key leader in Scottish campaigns seeking justice for survivors of child abuse.
He was 9 years old when he and his siblings were “dumped with the church and condemned to a miserable life of beatings, humiliation and cruelty,” according to his obituary in the Scotsman.
“He got his first taste of the brutal regime at Lanark’s Smyllum Orphanage when one of the nuns, who ran the institution, repeatedly kicked him and beat him with a hairbrush on day one,” the obituary read. “His ‘crime’ had been only to weep childish tears.”
Following Docherty’s death, a statement from him was read at an inquiry hearing.
“What you have to realise is that the abuse of a child is like throwing a pebble into a pool: the effect ripples through the whole family,” the statement read, according to a transcript from the hearing. “I know that every victim searches for peace of mind. I would never want any child to suffer as I did. My childhood was taken away from me.”
The majority of the orphanage’s former residents have now died, Lavery said, and the remaining survivors — he estimates a few dozen — are aging. He says the Scottish government “needs to deal with this now,” and bring urgent justice to these victims of abuse. He urged the United Nations to get involved in the inquiry.
Horrific accounts from survivors of the orphanage have been detailed in Scottish press over the years.
One former resident, Tom Brannan, told the Carluke Gazette he and his brother were at the orphanage in the mid-1950s, and alleged that one of the nuns on staff beat him with a cricket stump.
He recalled how another member of staff would “lift me up by the ears and kick me.” The staff member was reportedly buried in the same cemetery as the hundreds of children from the orphanage.
“Whatever excuse he could get, he would tear into me,” Brannan said. “The guy was a bully and a monster and the thought of him being buried next to some of the kids whose lives he made a living hell just sickens me.”
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