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The long road to justice for Polish childrens' abuse at the hands of nuns

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The Special Care Centre in Zabrze
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“I endured a four-year ordeal at the Special Care Centre in Zabrze run by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo. I have two scars on each of my eyebrows. One of them is the remnant of my run-in with Sister Bernadette, when she pulled me by my hair and I hit a radiator so hard that I lost consciousness. The second came after I hit a fish tank as a result of a struggle with Sister Monica. I saw how Sister Francisca beat my little brother, so I verbally insulted her. She slapped me in the face and scratched my cheek with her fingernails, which caused the third scar. None of the nuns has ever apologised to me.”

Marta was only seven when she and her five-year-old brother were taken away from their alcoholic parents and placed in the Catholic childcare facility in the heart of the industrial region of Upper Silesia in southern Poland. On the day of their arrival the nuns separated the siblings, as boys and girls lived in different wings of the building.

Throughout her entire stay at the Special Care Centre, Marta experienced neither kindness nor encouragement from the Borromean Sisters. Instead she was exposed on a daily basis to a range of various punishments, beatings, humiliation and ill treatment. She was force fed, tied up with jump ropes, bathed in cold water or put in the corner where she had to to kneel on dried peas holding a bowl of water above her head.

“We were all terrified and looked like we were from a horror movie: mournful expressions, no smiles. No one ever hugged us. We were all lonely, felt abandoned by everyone and simply thrown into the same pot”, recalls Marta, whose suffering unexpectedly came to end in 2008 when she, along with 60 other children, was relocated to various care centres across the Upper Silesian region.

JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN

The Special Care Centre in Zabrze, run by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo, was established in 1893 as a private institution dedicated to taking care of children requiring special education due to their hearing and visual impairments, as well as physical or learning disabilities. In practice, the facility also accepted children who were supposed to be placed in foster care. Until 2007, the Education Office in Katowice, responsible for the pedagogical supervision of the facility, had not carried out a single audit of the institution.

Consequently, the physical and verbal abuse of hundreds of children growing up under the Borromean nuns’ supervision went unnoticed for decades. It came to light unexpectedly during the course of an investigation into the rape and murder of eight-year-old Mateusz from the Silesian town of Rybnik.

The two accused men were former pupils of the Catholic centre who told police they had become violent sexual predators after themselves suffering abuse that was either encouraged or ignored by two nuns, Agnieszka F. and Bogumiła L., known respectively as Sister Bernadette and Sister Francisca.

A separate inquiry was launched, resulting in charges against the nuns which included incitement to rape, beatings, humiliating punishments and encouragement of older children to punish and abuse younger residents.

Joanna Smorczewska, prosecutor from the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Gliwice, who led the investigation against the Borromean nuns, recognised on her first visit to the facility that the children were unnaturally silent and appeared to be deeply intimidated, with obvious fear in their eyes.

“I remember seeing children sitting in a row in front of Sister Bernadette’s office. Only after a few months of investigations did we learn that they were waiting for their punishment. Sister Bernadette’s method for solving problems was to invite them to her office, where they had to take their clothes off and she would beat them with a stick or a belt”, recalls Smorczewska in an interview with Euronews.

A DAILY ROUTINE OF PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ABUSE

Smorczewska describes the Special Care Centre as a sinister facility where everything was impersonal. Pupils slept in large rooms with around twenty identical beds covered with identical bed sheets. Clothes were kept in one large, common wardrobe. The children did not have personal belongings or toys. Even the toothbrushes were the same. They were profoundly neglected and felt humiliated, as the nuns would allow them to take a bath only once a week and force them to wear dirty clothes.

In her opinion, the children were so mistreated that even when testifying they were unable to recognise the gravity of the crimes they were victims of; violence and humiliation had become part of the daily routine.

“One of the boys told us that the most disobedient pupils were taken to a place in the attic called “The Star”, where older boys would beat them, encouraged by the nuns. I asked him to take us there. And I think it was the worst moment in my professional life, because when we turned on the light, we saw traces of blood on the walls. I remember seeing one police officer with twenty years of experience crying”, says Smorczewska.

In 2011 the Regional Court in Gliwice found both Sister Bernadette and Sister Francisca guilty of physical assault and actions that facilitated the commission of the crime of paedophilia. Sister Bernadette was sentenced to two years in prison, while Sister Francisca was given an eight-month suspended sentence.

In an email to Euronews, Sister Claret Król, Superior General of the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo in Trzebnica, stressed that the congregation, along with sister Bernadette, had accepted the verdict with humility and refused to comment on the sentence, referring only to a “good custom and respect for the law of an independent court”.

“Sister Bernadette was punished in accordance with the Canon Law of the Catholic Church as well as the Congregation’s treaties. Thus, she bore double consequences for the charges she faced”, adds sister Claret Król.

The congregation decided to close the Special Care Centre in August 2015.

FIGHT FOR COMPENSATION

The trial has exposed not only the drama that took place behind the closed doors of the Catholic child care facility, but more importantly the devastating long-lasting consequences for the victims of child abuse, who in their adulthood became more prone to suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol or drug addictions or various learning difficulties.

“I do not know who I would be today, if I had stayed at this facility until my 18th birthday, because I know what happened to those girls who lived there so long. My best friend Aleksandra [the real name has been changed] has to live with a severe drinking problem and was recently deprived of custody over her children. Two girls have committed suicide because they were traumatized and mentally exhausted”, said Marta.

Paweł, who endured 12 years of humiliation and sexual abuse in the Special Care Centre in Zabrze, has found the inner strength to sue The Congregation of Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo for 230,000 Euros compensation and a 580-Euro monthly pension to cover the cost of medical treatment.

“The Sisters beat us for everything: bad grades, wetting the bed, laughing. Sometimes they would assign older boys to punish younger ones. They would merely say: “He is yours”. There were of course also good nuns, but those who were under the influence of Sister Bernadette tormented us”, recalled Paweł in 2014 when speaking with journalists at the Regional Court in Zabrze.

Smorczewska describes how the mere presence of Sister Bernadette evoked physical fear in children, visible even during the trial proceedings, as they were shaking in panic and trying to hide under the court bench whenever she approached them.

“These boys and girls were taken away from their families mostly in dramatic circumstances. Try to imagine a kindergarten-age child who has suffered traumatic experiences being placed in a facility where there is no love, but a bucket serving as a chamber pot at night, forcible fanning of a wetted bed sheet until the child faints and yelling all day long”, says Smorczewska.

Paweł was just six years old when older boys harassed him sexually for the first time. A few years later he tried to take his own life by swallowing psychiatric drugs. The nuns drove him to the hospital and managed to convince the doctors that he thought that he had eaten candy.

His life changed in 2006 when one of the teachers spotted bruises on his body and believed his explanation that these were marks from the beatings he endured at the nuns’ hands. Thanks to the school’s intervention, Paweł was immediately relocated to another childcare facility. He was the only child from the Special Care Centre whose suffering drew the attention of teachers, who fulfilled their duty to help him.

“Children who live in care centres are accused of all evils in advance, because of the social stigma about them: if something bad has happened, then this must have been done by the children from care facilities”, said Ireneusz Dobrowolski, director of Care Centre in Zabrze, where Marta was placed in 2008 following Sister Bernadette’s trial.

More than 90% of Polish citizens declare themselves to be of Catholic faith, a percentage that has not changed since the 1990s. For centuries, the Catholic Church has been closely connected with the state, resulting in the clergy enjoying enormous prestige and respect. Priests and nuns are typically considered flawless citizens whose opinions matter and who are, accordingly, highly valued in society.

"A GLASS CEILING HAS BEEN BROKEN"

However, as more and more cases of paedophilia committed by clerics have been recently uncovered in Poland and other countries around the world, this perception has started to change.

“I think that a glass ceiling has been broken. If we listen to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, then we might conclude that there is a kind of reflection. Because there is no doubt that the Church has known about this problem and has put a lot of effort into making sure that the victims would never receive the proper assistance they were entitled to”, stresses Rosati, a lawyer experienced in representing victims of abuses committed by members of the clergy.

The congregation of the St. Borromeo Sisters dismissed Paweł’s initial request for the voluntary payment of the compensation.

Paweł is so far the only survivor of the Borromean Sisters’ Catholic childcare facility to have decided to sue the congregation for compensation.

Although Marta considers the verdict in Sister Bernadette’s trial to be insufficient compared to the scope of her and other children’s suffering, she is not interested in starting a civil process against the nuns.

She believes that her strength lies in her ability to speak about her ordeal and hopes that this could prevent similar crimes in other childcare facilities.

“Some children refuse to recall these traumatic memories, because they fear that they will not be able to deal with them mentally. My brother is still coping with the past but I will speak about it as long as it remains necessary, because I do not want any other child to be hurt in the same way I was.”

By Natalia Ojewska