Andersonstown News Monday 26th of May 2009
A West Belfast community worker who was sexually abused whilst in care has accused the Catholic Church of protecting paedophiles.
John Leathem was beaten regularly by nuns while growing up as a child in the Nazareth Lodge orphanage on the Ormeau Road.
On his 13th birthday John was moved to the De Lalle Salle boys’ home in Kircubbin, Co Down.
For the next four years he was molested by older boys, until he left the institution aged 17.
He claims Brothers, some of whom were raping the teenagers, turned a blind eye to the abuse.
Last week the Ryan report into abuse at Christian Brother-run institutions in the South revealed sex attacks were “endemic”, that thousands suffered, and Church leaders knew what was going on. John says exactly the same thing was taking place at Catholic Church-run institutions in the North and has called for an inquiry, similar to the Ryan investigation, to probe the catalogue of abuse here.
JOHN Leathem was born on June 12, 1957. A week later he was abandoned by his mother.
With no family to care for him, he was sent to St Joseph’s Orphanage for babies at Nazareth Lodge.
The sprawling complex, then at the junction of the Ormeau Road and Ravenhill Road, had been taken over by the Catholic Church in the mid-1950s. Run by nuns, it looked after orphaned children up to the age of 12.
John has little memory of the St Joseph’s baby unit. However, his recollections of being moved to the children’s section of the orphanage are vivid – and the stuff of nightmares.
On his fifth birthday John became a ‘child’ and moved away from the ‘babies’ and into the main building at Nazareth Lodge.
That was to be his home for the next seven years – a living hell where beatings, humiliations and abuse at the hands of nuns was widespread.
“My earliest memory is being woken up as a five-year-old and having to get down on my knees and wax the floor,” recalled John. “We would use orange wax, I’ll never forget the colour. I would wax while another boy with two rags on his feet would come after me and rub the floor.
“You had to have the floor waxed before you got washed or had your breakfast.
“I remember at Christmas local businesses would organise a big party for all us orphans.
“We’d be given toys at the party but as soon as we got back to Nazareth Lodge the nuns would take them away. The toys were then sold in the New Year bazaar.
“That sounds terrible, but at the time, because we were so young, we never asked any questions.”
The staple meal for orphans at Nazareth Lodge was porridge and water. Occasionally they would be given rare luxury – fried bread.
“We used to steal fried bread from the kitchen, it was a real luxury,” said John.
“That and black bananas from a vegetable and fruit hut at the back of the orphanage. If we were caught stealing the nuns would give us terrible beatings.
“To escape the beatings we used to hide in a hen hut with the hens and chickens – it was the only place you could get away from the abuse.”
John explained how orphans were banned from sleeping on pillows. Nuns ordered the children to remove them from their beds each night.
“I didn’t know what pillows were used for until I left Nazareth Lodge.
“When we went to sleep we had to be entirely under the blanket. If even a lock of our hair showed we would get a crack on the head.
“I remember having a cough and having to not let on by coughing under the blanket. If you were sick you were beaten, that’s just the way it was. It was only when I was taken to the hospital later that I was diagnosed with severe asthma.”
John says children who wet the bed were put into industrial tumble dryers.
“People don’t believe me, but it’s true. The nuns used to beat us with these big serving spoons. One wee lad, he must have been only nine, fell down the stairs after having a bucket of scalding water thrown over him because he answered a nun back.”
Kind-hearted families would come to Nazareth Lodge at the weekends and take the orphans out for a day.
The children loved going out on these trips but dreaded going back to the nuns – knowing that they faced another round of beatings.
“A family took me out to Cookstown one Christmas and they bought me a Ludo set, two packets of Tayto crisps and gave me a £1 note,” said John.
“I was sick while I was with them and the doctor was called. When I got back to Nazareth Lodge the nuns beat me because the doctor had to be called.
“They broke my glasses and took the pound note from me to pay for the repairs.”
Shortly after his 12th birthday John was moved to De La Salle Boys’ Home at Kircubbin, Co Down.
Unlike Nazareth Lodge beatings were not as common – but sexual abuse was rampant.
“The Brothers knew what was going on and they all turned a blind eye to it. Some were even involved in the abuse, having sex with and molesting the boys,” said John.
“You had charge boys, usually about 15 or 16 years old, who were in charge of the dormitories. They had their own rooms and us younger kids were made to warm their beds for them.
“I remember waking up one time at night and an older boy was molesting me. Another time I was taken into the forest and stripped naked by older boys. I ran screaming back to my dorm.”
John explained how youngsters were beaten with a strap if they reported the abuse to the Brothers.
“They also banned us from watching Top of Pops and Dr Who. But it was better than Nazareth Lodge, even though we were all being molested, because there weren’t as many beatings.
“You have to understand that when you grow up in an environment like that – an orphanage – you don’t know any better.
“We all thought beatings and sexual abuse were what happened everywhere – not just at Nazareth Lodge or at Kircubbin.
“We thought it was a normal part of life so we didn’t complain. Anyway, who would listen to us? We were orphans. We had no-one to go to – we were in there because no one wanted us.”
On his 17th birthday John left the home at Kircubbin and was dropped off by a Christian Brother on the Glen Road.
He was given two options – live with a foster parent in the Lower Falls or stay at a Christian Brothers-run boys’ home on the Falls Road.
“I moved in with my adopted mother, Elizabeth Leathem, who had been visiting me for years while I was in care,” said John.
“I’ve got my life back on track now but it’s been difficult. I’ve self-harmed and tried to kill myself and it can all be traced back to my experiences at Nazareth Lodge and at Kircubbin.
“I know loads of people who were in those places and who have committed suicide as adults.
“Reading the Ryan report into the abuse at Christian Brothers homes in the South has brought the memories flooding back.
“There also needs to be an investigation into what happened at care homes up here.
“Children in the North suffered just as much abuse as those in the South. The Church owes us an apology too.”