'Cruel nuns stole my childhood'

At the age of two, Frances Reilly was abandoned by her mother and brought up in a convent where relentless mental and physical abuse drove her to the brink of despair.

Steven Russell

At the age of two, Frances Reilly was abandoned by her mother and brought up in a convent where relentless mental and physical abuse drove her to the brink of despair. Now living in Essex, she's written a book about how her childhood innocence was destroyed. Steven Russell met her. These are her allegations and this is her story

“WE have a pagan in the convent!” screams Sister X - not her real name - as she sweeps into the dormitory, waving a stick. “Where is she?” She points at a small girl. “Reilly! You are a heathen, a child of the Devil! Nobody is to come anywhere near you!” Frances Reilly's knees give way and she begins to tremble from head to toe. She doesn't know what "heathen” means and she doesn't know what she's done wrong, but she knows what's coming. “Please, Sister . . .” she starts to say.

“Silence!” yells the nun, running towards her, face crimson with fury. “The Devil's in you, Reilly! We'll beat him out of you now!”

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She leaps at the child, bringing the stick down on her head and then chasing her down a corridor, shouting “Demon child! Devil spawn!” Sister X drives Frances into a room in the nuns' section of the convent, where she begins to beat her even more viciously. Two other nuns arrive and join in, raining blows. The girl lies hunched on the floor, while Sister X slaps her across the face and the others hit her all over her body. Soon, mercifully, Frances passes out.

She wakes up on the floor, alone, head throbbing with pain. She's covered in red marks and every bone aches. Frances is locked in the room for three days. At night she pulls two chairs together and sleeps curled up across them, shivering without a blanket or cover. Nuns return several times “to beat the Devil out” of her.

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It was just before Christmas, 1956, that two-year-old Frances Reilly was deposited in Hell on earth. Her mother took her, six-year-old sister Loretta and baby Sinead - just eight weeks old - on a surprise trip to Belfast, about 70 miles away from their home in Omagh, Northern Ireland. The car stopped by a high brick wall, topped by broken glass and barbed wire. It looked like a prison.

“Now, Frances,” her mother said, “stay close to Loretta. I'll be back for ye soon. Loretta, give this to whoever answers the bell.” She handed over a letter, pulled on a cord by the gate, dashed to the car and drove off. The girls watched in horror.

They were taken in by a nun. The building smelled of overcooked food. It was Nazareth House Convent, and an orphanage/children's home, run by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth order.

They were taken to the Mother Superior, who read the letter and told them “Your mother has expressed her wish for you to stay here with us and devote your lives to God . . . We have a lot of rules for you to follow and I suggest you learn them quickly.”

The three girls were then bathed. Jeyes Fluid was poured into the water. “The brown liquid felt like it was burning us, but it didn't seem to matter to the nun how much we cried or tried to get out of the bath - she just kept scrubbing and pushing us back down into the murky water,” Frances recalls, many years later. “By the time she'd finished and we were allowed to get out, our skin was rubbed raw and we were crying uncontrollably.”

Then they were separated. Loretta was given a stark bed in a dormitory in the juniors' section, and her sisters were in the infants'. Loretta's reward for good behaviour was to see her sisters once a week. Initially, Frances slept in a cot with metal bars. There were rows of cots in a cavernous room with a single dim light. She remembers once waking from a nightmare, terrified, in the middle of the night. “Rattling the bars of my cot, I called and screamed for someone to come, but no-one did.”

Essex woman Frances Reilly's story is told in a new autobiographical account called Suffer the Little Children, which covers nearly 13 years of her life under the rule of institutional regimes. It is a harrowing and pitiful read. This summary of the book gives but a flavour and doesn't do justice to the hopeless atmosphere of unrelenting physical and mental cruelty the author describes.

Frances was six when she was moved to the junior section. Sister X came to fetch her. “I was terrified of her straight away. 'You will be in my dormitory,' she said, 'and I will be watching you every minute of the day.”

In bed, girls had to lie on their backs, hands across the chest “to keep the Devil out”, the food was dreadful - slop and gristle - and much worse than the younger children had, and the days consisted mainly of praying, cleaning and lining up to a bell.

Each girl had a number, which was called out when they were allocated work in the convent. Frances was number four. They were sometimes called by their surnames, but Christian names were rarely used.

She describes her shock when a girl was slapped across the face and head for not lifting up her feet during an Irish dancing lesson and was then pulled out of the room by her hair. “My time in the infants hadn't been pleasant. I'd been pushed, pulled, rapped on the knuckles and shouted at more times than I could remember, but it wasn't as bad as this.”

Anyone who wet their bed had to stand with the soiled sheet over their head and then take it down to the laundry, where a nun would hit the girl with a walking stick. “I remember that a girl messed her bed once. She had it rubbed in her face, literally.”

There were other humiliations.

“We changed our navy knickers once a week after knicker inspection, when we had to stand in a semicircle with our knickers off and hold up the gusset for Sister X to scrutinise. If there was even the slightest stain on the gusset of your knickers, she would slap you and scream that you were a filthy, dirty animal. 'Yes, Sister. Thank you, Sister,' you had to say when you finally received a clean pair.”

Saturday night bathtime, meanwhile, was very public. The dirty water wasn't changed as the girls bathed in shifts; and, worst of all, lots of Jeyes was added.

“Jeyes Fluid was used for every kind of cleaning job, from washing drains to scrubbing floors. It's an evil, thick, dark-brown liquid that smells positively vile. To this day, whenever I smell it, I feel immediately sick, and it was the same back then,“ says Frances. It stung your skin, particularly your genitals and any cuts. “And if you winced in pain, you were scolded and reminded again that 'cleanliness was next to godliness'.”

She adds: “Later on I became convinced that it was just another way in which the nuns could take their frustrations out on us. They did it because they could; there was no-one there to speak out on our behalf.”

Most of the girls attended lessons regularly but for the Reillys - “scum and only fit for cleaning”, according to Sister X - and a few others there was precious little education apart from Bible studies, and they were never taught to read or write. So the Reilly girls were generally found scrubbing and polishing corridors and floors, washing walls or working in the convent laundry or kitchen.

Not surprisingly, any real hope of their mother ever coming back for them soon shrivelled and died within Frances and Loretta.

Then, one day, they had their first ever visitor. It was their father: a handsome, fair-haired man in his mid-30s, with tanned skin, sun-bleached hair and wearing a British army uniform. He also had a walking stick and winced with pain when he tried to move.

Dad had served in India for many years and was about to leave on medical grounds after developing gangrene. He told his daughters he was going into hospital that day because he had had an accident and suffered injuries. When he came out, part of his legs would be missing and he'd be in a wheelchair. But he'd come to terms with that and would return as soon as he could. “Hang in there,” he told them. “I'll be back as soon as I can to take you home.”

“Here was our daddy telling us how much he loved and missed us . . . for the first time ever, all three of us were happy.”

It wasn't to last. Some time afterwards, one of the nuns was taking morning prayers. Matter-of-factly, she said they'd like to offer up prayers for the Reillys' father, who had died the previous night in hospital. “Then she continued with normal morning prayers.”

Frances writes: “My father was dead and with him had died all hope: hope of love, hope of freedom and hope of a normal family life. I wondered why God had allowed it to happen.”

Although they never had visits or letters from their mother, she did send a tea-chest full of Christmas presents each year. The Reillys would be allowed to see them and handle them - fine dolls, selection boxes and so on - but they'd never be allowed to keep any. The presents disappeared, spirited away for “children more deserving of them”.

One day there was an unexpected change in Frances's routine. She was taken to a large room and kitted out with different - better - clothes to her brown convent-issue dress, along with a tattered brown suitcase, hairbrush, comb and toothbrush. A good Catholic family living on a small farm was taking her out for the weekend. The girl, both apprehensive and excited, was warned to say nothing bad about the good sisters who had taken her in off the street and cared for her.

There was a bus and train journey with the man who collected her, who wanted to be known as Uncle Fred (again, not his real name) and bought her sweets. On the journey, Frances “couldn't believe how different - how full of life - the landscape was, compared to the drab, dark brick walls of the convent”.

Fred shared the farm with his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephews and nieces. The food, baked and prepared by the sister-in-law, was delicious. There was TV, animals, and other children to play with. But Frances found herself having to share a bed with Fred, who sexually abused her - as did his brother on a different occasion.

For weeks afterwards, good memories of the farm visit swirled around her head. But then recollections of what the two brothers did to her would rise to the surface. “I tried to push them out by replacing them with better memories, and sometimes it would work. But all too often it didn't, and my mind would fill with images and sounds of the awful things they'd done to me. Sometimes, mostly at night when the lights were out, when no-one could see me, I'd cry about it.”

One day, during recreation hour, it all got too much and Frances started crying. A friend said they'd have to tell the nuns what had happened. Despite Frances's misgivings, she agreed the duty nun could be told. She wished she'd trusted her instincts.

The youngster was accused of telling filthy lies about the family that had been so kind to her. Sister X “stormed down the central aisle of the dormitory and slapped me across the face with such force that she knocked me to the floor and halfway under my bed . . . I felt myself being dragged out . . . Some of my hair caught in the metal springs beneath the mattress and, as she pulled me out, large clumps were ripped out at the roots”.

She was marched to the bathroom, where a large piece of carbolic soap was pushed into her howling mouth. “At that moment I wanted to kill her,” Frances says of the nun inflicting cruelty on her. “Worse than the physical pain of the attack . . . was the emotional pain . . .”

But probably her worst experience involved The Cubbyhole - a walk-in cupboard at the top of the stairs, next to one of the dormitories. It was controlled by Sister X and was the place where she inflicted many of her punishments.

One day, Frances was in trouble for looking at the nun on the way to Mass. “A few weeks earlier I'd been in trouble for not looking at her . . . It was another lose-lose situation.”

She was ordered to undress and face the wall. The nun sat on a old wooden crate. “There was no sound from Sister X. I knew that she was playing games - making me wait as long as possible before starting my punishment - and I let out an anguished sob.”

“No-one will hear you, Reilly, so you can stop that at once.”

Silent tears formed wet patches on the wooden floor. “I was used to the brutal punishments dished out by many of the nuns, but what happened here, with Sister X went well beyond that. I lowered my head and waited. Almost at once, an intense, excruciating pain filled my backside. The force of the blow threw me against the pigeonholes . . .”

“I'll beat the Devil out of you, Reilly! Get your eyes to Heaven!” Sister X screamed.

Frances was hit repeatedly with a heavy wooden clothes-brush. “Again and again she laid into me. Huddled on the floor, I lacked the breath to scream . . . I lay on the floor sobbing hysterically, my back, bottom and legs racked with pain, shivering as much from the cold as from fright. My suffering was made all the worse by the certain knowledge that no-one would come and rescue me.”

After the assault, she was locked in, and told to think about “whether you want to be a child of God or a child of the Devil“. Red-hot wheals began to rise on her legs and backside.

As time passed she grew increasingly desperate for the loo, but there was nowhere to go and she tried desperately to hold on. She didn't really register at first when relief came. Then came a sense of terror about what the nun would do. Sister X returned soon after. “My head flew back with the force of a powerful slap . . . She grabbed a handful of my hair and forced my head down into the puddle. Using me like a mop, she rubbed my head back and forth across the floor until my long, loose hair was dripping wet and my face and nose were scratched raw.”

The punishment wasn't over, as more pain and humiliation followed in the bathroom.

Loretta and a friend told Frances this kind of treatment couldn't go on; they ought to try to escape. “I was definitely ready to take my chances outside on the streets. Anything was better than this - and if I didn't leave soon, then I might die here.”

They hatched a bizarre plan to escape wearing nun's habits - bizarre but initially successful. A girl created a diversion at breakfast, seven slipped away to don the habits, and they got out of the back gate thanks to someone managing to obtain the key. The girls enjoyed a few hours of exhilarating freedom before being captured by police and taken back to the convent.

As time passed, Frances went to the farm several times, but Uncle Fred and his brother continued to abuse her. Back in the convent, she struggled for weeks to keep the farm out of her mind.

“I didn't want to lose the good memories, because I had so few of them in the convent, but the other memories were so awful that I had to try to block them out. But much worse than the memories were the flashbacks, which I couldn't control . . . I relived the pain I'd felt at the time all over again. Finally, I told the priest at confession about . . . (the) abuse. He told me to say the Rosary as a penance, which made me feel even more like it had been my fault.”

Then came the day Loretta escaped, apparently making it to England with the help of the bread-delivery lad, who'd taken a shine to her. Loretta didn't tell her sisters of her plans - suspecting the nuns would get out of the girls what they knew. “They beat me all the same,” says Frances, “as she must have known they would, breaking cane after cane on my head, arms and legs . . . It was one of the worst punishments I endured in all my years at the convent.”

Months later, Frances and Sinead themselves sneaked out and slipped onto a ferry bound for Liverpool - only to be discovered before it set sail.

The next day, it seemed the nuns were playing cat and mouse with them, as their “prison room” was left unlocked. Within an hour they were standing on a station platform. They spent a night in a not-yet-finished house on a building site before being apprehended.

Back at the convent, the pair prepared for the harshest of beatings, but were surprised the following day when told to put on new clothes. They were passed into the care of a nice lady. She took them to what turned out to be a courtroom, where a panel of magistrates asked the girls a few questions. A man revealed he'd had a telegram from Mrs Reilly, who said she had mental health problems and was unable to have her daughters living with her.

“It took a few moments for this new development to sink in. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared at the piece of paper in the man's hand. Could it really be from our mother? Was it true that she still didn't want us? If so, there would never be any point in trying to find her. I was devastated. Nobody wanted us. We were totally alone.”

The lady looking after them explained they wouldn't be going back to the convent. Instead, they'd go to a remand home for difficult children a fair distance away. This was also run by nuns. The routine - bells, prayers, the smell of Jeyes cleaning fluid, disgusting food - was virtually identical. There was one big difference: the girls were not abandoned orphans but rebels who didn't fit in anywhere else, and there was less respect for the nuns.

The regime, says Frances, “was every bit as harsh and took just as much of a toll on me, both mentally and physically“. There were countless punishments and beatings during her time there, “and some of the other girls were completely terrifying . . . Violence was an everyday fact of life“.

Surrounded by hard, unruly teenagers, “I quickly toughened up. I had to . . . I was disrespectful and answered them (the nuns) back . . . It was partly my age - I was fast approaching adolescence - and I think that in many ways I was taking out my anger towards the Nazareth House nuns . . .”

Frances drifted apart from Sinead when the younger girl started hanging around with a gang. “They thrived on aggression and I hated to see my sister turning into a bully . . . On two occasions her friends beat me up and she went along with it, just to prove her loyalty to the gang. After that I began to ignore her. I didn't like the person she'd become.”

The next few years were spent “with just one thing on my mind: escape”. Frances got out many times, only to be brought back and punished.

Finally, she and another girl squeezed out of the small washroom window and climbed down knotted bedsheets to the laundry roof. Other girls in the dormitory hauled back the linen and made the empty beds look occupied so the missing pair had all night to get far away.

They managed to hitch lifts to Derry, where Frances's best friend, Patsy, was living after being released from the remand home, and hid in the local Catholic church by night. Patsy and her friends brought them clothes and food.

They were also put in touch with a guy who had escaped from Borstal two years earlier and had managed to remain undetected. It was thought an MP, Bernadette Devlin, might be able to help them, and they were taken to her home. She explained that as an MP she had to uphold the law and tell the remand home the girls were coming, but they could have a good discussion with her about their grievances. She said she'd talk to the nuns and had a feeling the girls wouldn't be punished this time.

Two months later, in the summer of 1969, Frances was abruptly ordered to the dormitory to get her things. You're leaving us today, she was told, to work for a good Catholic family in Portadown. Good riddance. You won't be missed.

At 3pm, dizzy with fear and excitement, she walked into a waiting car, carrying nothing but an extra set of clothes, a nightdress, a comb and a toothbrush. “I had nothing of my own, apart from the emotional scars left by a childhood of abuse . . . I had no idea what lay ahead of me as the car passed through the gates, but one thing was clear: at last I was free.”

Sinead left a couple of years later and for a while followed her sister from place to place. “I loved her,” says Frances, “but we never became really close again. The only thing we ever talked about was the convent. It was so hard to move on from it.” They lost touch and haven't seen each other for about 30 years, she says.

Frances was 23 when she met Loretta again. Loretta was living in London with their mother and two brothers. Frances visited several times after her sister moved out of her mother's; they got on well, but the convent and their mother were both painful subjects for them. “She still could not write, and the scars on her back were still clearly visible. The visits triggered painful memories, and so over the years we saw less of each other. Then, after about ten years, the visits stopped altogether.”

And what of the woman who had given up three daughters?

“I almost wish that I hadn't met my mother again. She was a huge disappointment to me,” writes Frances. She'd hoped and imagined her to be a motherly type like the nice lady at the farm, but she wasn't, “so I was disgusted to find her in a drunken state when I arrived at her house at eleven o'clock in the morning. The house was a mess.

“I took a good look at her and thought to myself 'I'll never be like you.'”

And what about Frances herself?

“I'd left the convent a very damaged person, carrying with me a lot of emotional problems. I was often severely depressed and on many occasions contemplated suicide.” Unfortunately, particularly in those early years, no-one outside the convent seemed to understand or believe what she had been through, she says.

“Over time I developed two survival mechanisms. First I tried to hide the most painful memories by putting on a front . . . Also, I erected barriers to stop people, except my children, from getting close and hurting me.”

While her children were young, these mechanisms worked well enough; but as they became less dependent on her, the defences started to fail, and by the time the boys had left home “they had collapsed completely . . . My life started to fall apart. Flashbacks to the convent became much more regular. I started to get frequent panic attacks and developed severe agoraphobia. I'd always suffered from periods of depression, but these became much more pronounced. My cleaning compulsion developed into obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

In 1998, ex-husband, who remained a good friend, pointed out a newspaper article about a group of women in Scotland taking an order of nuns, The Poor Sisters of Nazareth, to court for allegedly abusing them during their childhood. It caused “vivid, unwanted memories” to flood back.

The following January, Frances found the courage to go to a solicitor in Colchester and initiate her own legal action, which would take nearly a decade to complete.

Some months after she'd first approached a solicitor about taking action, her GP put her in touch with a local counsellor to help treat the depression and agoraphobia. After the sessions, at which Frances relived her experiences at the convent, she found it useful to go back home and write them down. Chapters were passed on to her solicitor. Most importantly, “it helped me realise that it was not my fault”.

That writing has become the core of her book.

“It has been a long and difficult struggle, but gradually I've gained strength and confidence . . . Why put myself through the pain? My answer to that is simple enough: if I want to move on, then I have no choice - I have to be heard.”

Suffer the Little Children is published by Orion Books at �12.99. ISBN 978 0 7528 7456 2

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