The man who spearheaded the campaign to establish the inquiry into abuses at a Derry children’s home run by the Sisters of Nazareth has said he forgives the nuns “not to free them, but to free me”.
Addressing the inquiry John McCourt said he no longer directed anger at the system which mistreated him and hundreds of others.
In a powerful and lengthy testimony Mr McCourt detailed his 10 years at St Joseph’s, Termonbacca, telling the panel of separation from siblings, sexual abuse by older boys, as well as beatings and assaults by nuns.
Mr McCourt, who waived his right to anonymity, told how he was beaten for being left handed and for repeatedly wetting the bed. He said he continued to wet his bed long after he left the home in the late 1960s as a teenager.
Graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of older boys at the home, were contained in a copy of the sworn statement Mr McCourt gave to the inquiry.
Senior counsel to the inquiry, Christine Smith QC, asked for sensitivity from reporters present.
The inquiry panel also heard how in 1963 McCourt was found reading a newspaper report about the Cuban missile crisis by a nun who began beating and kicking him. Mr McCourt detailed the injuries he suffered and the treatment required at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry.
Boys were often known by their numbers, he said, rather than their names.
“I started class in 1964, there were 31 boys there,” he said.
“I didn’t know two-thirds of them. But I knew their numbers. I got called No. 10 certainly more times than I got John.” He said the nuns often just called him “boy” and sometimes used only his surname.
He spoke of separation from his brothers and told the inquiry he did not know that he had a sister also in the care of the nuns.
The witness told of the kindness shown by many outside the home, by charities and individuals who organised day trips and Christmas parties or bought gaelic football kits for the boys.
He also said that a less severe atmosphere developed at Termonbacca in the mid 1960s which he associates with the arrival of a younger nun to the care home.
In a deeply emotional submission to the inquiry panel Mr McCourt said he and other witnesses had waited 50 years to give their testimony openly.
“I hope we have done it with dignity and respect,” he said. “My anger against the people and the system that caused so much pain and destroyed so many lives has gone. I forgive them for the pain and anguish that they caused me, not to free them but to free me.”
He added: “To hold that anger still gives them power over me,” but he warned, “ that forgiveness does not release them from their responsibility of atonement or the opportunity to make amends.”
Breaking down he said his sympathy was not for the nuns but for “the many of us who never made it this far” and he named his now-deceased sister and many others.
“It’s not my place to forgive on their behalf or on behalf of the many here at home in Ireland or scattered across lands who still hurt because of their experience. We carry their torch and we are their voice. Their memory and the courage I have seen in those who have come forward to speak to this acknowledgment forum of this formal inquiry will carry me and many others through this.”
He said the push for an inquiry “was not about destroying the church”.
“Hopefully what we have done is create the opportunity for the church to re-engage with some of the most vulnerable people.”