ABC Radio Australia
Updated 22 April 2015, 14:30 AEST
A senior Catholic nun has apologised to victims of sexual abuse at St Joseph’s Orphanage at Neerkol, near Rockhampton, during her testimony at a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing.
Hundreds of children were beaten, molested and raped at St Joseph’s over three decades up until the late 1970s.
Sisters of Mercy Australia leader Berneice Loch finished her testimony this morning at the inquiry, which is investigating systemic abuse at the orphanage.
Sister Loch was a senior member of the Sisters of Mercy when allegations of abuse at the orphanage first came to light in the 1990s.
She now leads the order’s Australian branch.
Under cross-examination this morning, Sister Loch apologised to the victims of abuse.
“I have been deeply moved this week and last week at the goodness of people who have come through very hard days – their goodness and courage,” she said.
Sister Loch told the inquiry she now understood the long-term impacts of child sexual assault was not confined to the victim themselves.
“Reflecting on the responses made by me personally and by our congregation over the years since about 1993, I regret that I did not take steps earlier to learn more about abuse and its effects on people, and about possible responses,” she said.
“I did the best I could at the time and with the knowledge I had, but my best fell a long way short of ideal.
“I think the Sisters of Mercy have tried to focus on the needs of those who were in our care as children and this has informed our thinking and guided our decisions, however imperfectly.”
She said she hoped the Catholic Church would continue to acknowledge its past failings.
“It’s the only way we can be the church we’re called to be,” she said.
“I am not sure it is possible to get this right since every individual has a different understanding of what is needed to set things right, but we can continue to work on it.
“I believe that it is important to focus on establishing good relationships as integral to any response that can set people free of memories that diminish and entrap them.
“Many victims speak of their wish to hear the word sorry and of their wish to ensure that other children will never suffer as they did.
“We can promise to work constantly towards the prevention of child abuse of any sort.
“[We] will continue to improve our processes for prevention of abuse where we can and for respectful interaction with those who have suffered where abuse still occurs.”
Sister Loch had testified yesterday she objected to abuse allegations being raised in the Queensland Parliament by then-Nationals MP Kevin Lingard in 1996.
Mr Lingard’s ministerial statement prompted hundreds of victims of rape and molestation to come forward, but Sister Loch told the inquiry the allegations were sensationalised in the media.
In September 1997, the Sisters of Mercy apologised to the former residents of the orphanage.
Some nuns ’embarrassed, upset’ about the allegations
Di-Anne Rowan, who was a congressional leader with the Sisters of Mercy during the late 1990s, told the inquiry today she believed up to five of the nuns that allegedly perpetrated the abuse were still alive during the early 1990s when the allegations first became public.
Ms Rowan testified one of the nuns agreed to meet with a victim, but the others were reluctant.
She said their reluctance stemmed from anxiety that they would not remember the specific incidents.
“Their big concern was because the incidents had happened so many years ago they might not remember,” she said.
“Most of what I discussed with them, they didn’t remember, so they couldn’t give specific details.
“They really were embarrassed about the allegations … I think it did affect them very deeply and they were ashamed, embarrassed, upset.”
Ms Rowan left the order in 2003.
The commission has also heard evidence about the sale of the Neerkol orphanage site.
The Sisters of Mercy sold the site for $1.43 million in 2000, to help fund compensation for the victims.
Former nun pays tribute to Neerkol victims at Royal Commission
The former leader of the Sisters of Mercy congregation has broken down at the Royal Commission as she paid tribute to the courageous victims of abuse at St Joseph’s Orphanage Neerkol near Rockhampton. Now a layperson, Di-Anne Rowan gave evidence she couldn’t explain why the nuns who came before her treated children so viciously at the orphanage, but decades later they were ashamed and embarrassed by their behaviour.
ABC News Australia
MARK COLVIN: At the child sex abuse Royal Commission, a former nun broke down today as she paid tribute to the courage of the abuse victims at the St Joseph’s Orphanage Neerkol.
Di-Anne Rowan once led the Sisters of Mercy order which ran the orphanage near Rockhampton from the 1880s to the 1970s.
Ms Rowan told the Commission she couldn’t explain why other nuns had treated the Neerkol children so viciously.
Samantha Donovan reports.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The Royal Commission has heard the nuns who ran the St Joseph’s Orphanage inflicted severe physical punishments on the children, sometimes leaving them injured for weeks.
Survivors have given evidence the beatings have left them with scars, physical disabilities like poor hearing, as well as severe psychological problems.
Di-Anne Rowan was elected leader of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in 1996. By that time, Neerkol victims had formed an action group and were seeking help and compensation from the nuns.
Ms Rowan told the Royal Commission some victims requested to meet the nuns they alleged had abused them, and that made some of the elderly sisters nervous.
DI-ANNE ROWAN: Sister Saint Pious was very anxious and very nervous prior to the meeting as well.
SOPHIE DAVID: Did any of those sisters express a reluctance to meet with the former residents?
DI-ANNE ROWAN: Yes. Some of them, their big concern was that because the incidents had happened so many years ago, that they wouldn’t remember it. And again, they felt how terrible this would be for someone to tell of something that had made such an impact on them and the sister to say, “I’m sorry I don’t remember the incident, or I don’t remember you even.”
I genuinely believe they did not want to cause any more hurt.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Di-Anne Rowan gave evidence nuns were asked by the order to explain their actions and endorse an apology. At least one personally apologised to her victim.
Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission Sophie David asked Ms Rowan if the nuns faced any other consequences.
SOPHIE DAVID: Not specifically. I do think that many of them, for them many of them, the consequences were that they really were embarrassed about the allegations, and so their experiences of Neerkol, it really changed them.
I think it did affect them very deeply.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Di-Anne Rowan told the Royal Commission she couldn’t fully explain why the sisters punished the children so brutally.
Royal commissioner Andrew Murray.
ANDREW MURRAY: When you were leader of the congregation and you were dealing with these issues of your fellow sisters, did they come to a realisation that decades of cruelty exposed at Neerkol was not just shameful, but was thoroughly un-Christian?
DI-ANNE ROWAN: Yes. So there is little bit of a line which says if you suffer, it will be good for you. I don’t think anyone agrees with that today. But I think it was an element.
ANDREW MURRAY: Suffering was all by the children, wasn’t it?
DI-ANNE ROWAN: The sisters did suffer too. I know it does not excuse what happened with the children, but I do know from listening to the sisters, how they also suffered.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Di-Anne Rowan left the Sisters of Mercy Order to become a layperson in 2003.
She began to cry as she explained her departure didn’t have anything to do with the allegations raised by the Neerkol victims.
DI-ANNE ROWAN: Working with those who had been at Neerkol was perhaps one of the hardest things I’d had to do, but I would still consider it the greatest privilege to have been part of that, to meet them and to work with them.
I really do want to thank them for their courage. I’ve been inspired by them.
SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The royal commission hearings into St Joseph’s Orphange Neerkol finished this afternoon.
MARK COLVIN: Samantha Donovan.
‘Abusive’ nuns reluctant to meet victims from Neerkol orphanage
Nuns accused of abusing children at a notorious Queensland orphanage refused to meet the victims as adults because they feared not remembering what happened, a national inquiry has heard.
Members of The Sisters of Mercy perpetrated a decades-long reign of terror, according to former residents of the Neerkol orphanage, near Rockhampton, involving cruel and humiliating punishments to keep children in line.
Former Sisters of Mercy congregational leader Di-Anne Rowan told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Wednesday that she spoke with up to five elderly nuns in the 1990s who had been named as perpetrators.
Ms Rowan, who left the order in 2002, said while some wrote letters of apology to abuse victims, she was aware of just one who met with a former resident.
“Their big concern was that because the incidents had happened so many years ago they wouldn’t remember it,” she said on Wednesday.
“They felt how terrible this would be for someone to tell of something that had had such an impact on them.”
Ms Rowan said some were anxious they would become defensive and cause more hurt to victims.
“They were happy to apologise but sometimes if you can’t remember the specifics … it doesn’t mean as much.”
She said in one case an elderly nun had no recollection of an incident described in graphic detail by a former resident.
In 1997 the Sisters of Mercy issued a formal apology to former Neerkol residents who suffered physical and sexual abuse.
The congregation also established a committee to organise emotional and financial support for abuse victims.
The commission is into its seventh day of a public hearing in Rockhampton.