An independent investigation into allegations of abuse at children’s homes run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy has found serious failings by the Roman Catholic nuns but has discounted the worst allegations involving deaths in care.
The excessive punishment doled out by some sisters was mainly due to the “systemic misery” of the homes, where both children and carers experienced hardship, the commission of experts found in its review of the decades from 1928 to the 1970s.
The commission, mandated by the Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross two years ago, presented a 220-page report of its findings at the mother house of the order in Brunnen in canton Schwyz on Wednesday.
Under the chairmanship of lawyer Magnus Küng, the commission set itself the task of finding answers as to why a significant number of children were “so defencelessly abandoned to their tormentors”.
“Not only the authorities, the bodies who carried out inspections, and the management of the homes clearly bear their share of the institutional blame but also the leadership of the [religious] community. Many questions still remain about the guilt of individuals,” Küng said.
Of the 55 former residents of 16 different children’s homes who came forward with their testimonies, more than a quarter had predominantly negative memories, 13 mixed and 60 per cent positive.
The punishments the former residents recall include beatings, being held underwater, being forced to eat up vomited food, being denied food and being locked up in the dark.
A former resident of a children’s home in canton Fribourg, staffed by Ingenbohl sisters told swissinfo.ch that the seven years she spent in their care were “dreadful”.
“Once a nun pulled me to the ground by my hair and a clump of my hair stayed in her hand. They held my head under water. They treated all the children in the same way. We were traumatised,” said Michèle Gillard-Loubhane.
The commission also interviewed 23 nuns born between 1917 and 1943 who worked in a total of 22 different homes countrywide. None of them recalled carrying out or witnessing excessive punishment.
Out of sight, out of mind
The revelations about the treatment of children by nuns belonging to the Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy are not the first to surface in Switzerland.
In 2012 canton Lucerne and the Roman Catholic church presented a report into abuses at 15 children’s homes and youth centres in the canton between 1930 and 1970.
Two out of every three institutions were church-run.
In that report, more than half the interviewees described incidents of sexual violence. Beatings and other punishments were also found to be common.
The Rathausen reformatory, one of Switzerland’s biggest children’s homes, was among the institutions investigated.
Around 3,500 poor or illegitimate children spent part of their childhood in that home.
In recent years there have also been revelations about the conditions faced by so-called Verdingkinder, or child labourers: poor children who were placed in farms by the authorities to work without pay.
Two years ago the Swiss government apologised to young people who were sent to prison for “administrative care” between 1942 and 1981.
These teenagers were imprisoned without trial on the recommendation of the guardianship authorities for “re-education” for such reasons as “depraved lifestyle” or “licentiousness”.
Many cases involved pregnant girls, who were forced to give up their babies for adoption.
The experts, who include a former judge, an education expert, a historian and a psychologist, accept that “in different homes there were those who systematically visited abhorrent suffering on the children”. But they also point out that that there were nuns who did their best for the children under the most difficult circumstances.
Society also turned its back on these children, for the most part from broken homes. “They went in stigmatised and they came out stigmatised,” historian Carlo Moos told swissinfo.ch.
Psychologist and commission member Beatrix Staub-Verhees described the working conditions of the nuns she interviewed, some of whom worked for more than 30 or 40 years in numerous homes.
“The further back you go the more difficult the working conditions were: long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.”
The mother superior of the Ingenbohl sisters Marie-Marthe Schönenberger has issued a blanket apology to those badly treated in the care of her order.
“With sadness and great regret we confirm that in individual cases our fellow sisters acted inappropriately in the work of looking after the children,” Schönenberger said.
“We are sorry for the suffering caused by our behaviour as individual sisters, as the leadership of the order and as a community,” she added.
Accepting that sexual abuse was a reality in children’s homes to some extent, the commission could not shed any light on the role of the nuns in any confirmed cases of sexual abuse. It found no “robust proof either for or against the assumption that nuns also [sexually] attacked children.”
Accusations against sisters in different homes at different times do exist but could not be adequately verified so long afterwards, partly because of the "unmentionable" nature of such offences at the time and the lack of any contemporary documentation.
The issue of ill-treatment of children at Ingenbohl-staffed homes first hit the headlines in 2009 when excerpts from the memoirs of a former girl resident of the Rathausen home in canton Lucerne were published in which the woman blamed the death of her sister and that of another child on the violent actions of a named nun.
The diaries, found in the woman’s attic after her death claimed that her sister Bertha Bucher, aged 13, died in 1928 from a head injury two weeks after a beating by Sister Ursula and that the cause of death given was a fall from a swing.
The commission found that there was insufficient evidence to connect the alleged beating to the girl’s death but said the home had acted negligently in not seeking medical care for the seriously ill child in the days leading up to her death from meningitis.
The same woman also recorded the case of a boy called Paul Wildi who, she wrote, died after being thrown down the stairs by the same nun. Investigators found that this information was incorrect. Paul Wildi died in hospital of meningitis.
Allegations of three cases of children who committed suicide in the 1940s, as described by a former home resident in Rathausen were found to be groundless. The man claimed in 2011 that the three had killed themselves as a consequence of abuse in the home.
Switzerland has changed beyond recognition since the peak era of the Ingenbohl sisters around 1940 when they had 2,461 sisters living and working in 300 locations of different kinds in Switzerland.
“The absolute truth can never be established, but with this report we have come a significant step closer to the truth,” Küng said.
By Clare O’Dea in Brunnen, swissinfo.ch