Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 14:49 UK

Spotlight on catalogue of cruelty

John McCourt and Darragh MacIntyre
John McCourt told reporter Darragh MacIntyre of the abuse he encountered

A catalogue of cruelty is finally seeping out of the system that was meant to care for vulnerable children in Northern Ireland.

BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight reveals the untold story of abuse in homes run by an order of nuns - and searches for the answers that still elude former residents.

Years after abuse became a global scandal for the Catholic Church - and a legal issue costing millions of pounds - the problem within Northern Ireland remained locked in the past.

Earlier this year, the Ryan Commission revealed endemic abuse in children's institutions in the Republic. Legal settlements have been made in America, Australia and other countries.

But some former residents of homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast and Londonderry have told Spotlight they are still waiting for an adequate response from either church or state.

Reporter Darragh MacIntyre hears allegations of routine physical punishment and emotional cruelty.

And the programme hears a representative of the order respond publicly for the first time to the allegations in Northern Ireland.

Former resident John McCourt from Derry describes being beaten with a towel rail.

"It wasn't about looking after children," he says.

"It was about physically making children toe the line."

Margaret McGuckin
There was no affection in there whatsoever - it was just coldness and darkness
Margaret McGuckin

The programme reveals that Ireland's most notorious paedophile, Fr Brendan Smyth, regularly preyed on children in the Nazareth institutions.

For decades, the Sisters of Nazareth were the cornerstone of care for Catholic children who needed residential care.

In Northern Ireland, 14,000 children went through their system.

Nazareth institutions around the world were founded on the ideal that children should be loved like the infant Jesus. But for many residents, the reality was different.

"For the nuns to put the love of Jesus in you…" says Margaret McGuckin. "No, I just felt like a monster and unwanted alien.

"There was no affection in there whatsoever - it was just coldness and darkness."

Professor Deirdre Heenan, an expert on child care at the time the Sisters of Nazareth were running their homes, says the nuns were acting "in the name of religion".

'For your own good'

She says they would tell children "we are trying to beat the devil out of you, we are trying to cleanse your soul".

"The whole idea behind the religious orders would have been that this is actually for your own good," she says.

But she says abuse was not confined to the Catholic homes.

"What we do know from the official reports is that physical violence and emotional deprivation were endemic within these homes," Professor Heenan says.

"So I don't think we can single out the nuns and say that this only happened in this type of institution."

The Sisters of Nazareth hold assets worth tens of millions of pounds, but they have never admitted responsibility for the abuse in their homes.

But thanks to the Ryan Report, former Nazareth residents in the Republic got official recognition that the abuse occurred.

They can also look for an apology and compensation through the Irish redress scheme.

But on this side of the border, former residents are still waiting.

One, Tony Hanna, tells Spotlight: "I just want a better future and an apology for what happened."

Spotlight is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday 6 October at 2240 GMT

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