As two men are jailed for abuse at the former St Ninian’s School in Falkland, Fife, what are the long term consequences for survivors of child abuse as they move into adulthood? Michael Alexander spoke to some of the survivors to find out.
It was the day that the headmaster and a teacher of a former Fife school for troubled boys were finally convicted of physical and sexual abuse against six pupils more than 30 years ago.
John Farrell, 73, and Paul Kelly, 64, were sentenced to five and 10 years respectively for assaulting vulnerable pupils at St Ninian’s in Falkland, Fife, which was run by the worldwide Congregation of Christian Brothers.
The pair abused the boys – many who already had a chaotic upbringing and whom they should have been protecting – to satisfy their depraved needs.
On Friday August 12 at the High Court in Glasgow, judge Lord Matthews said they had committed a “gross abuse of trust”.
But away from the headlines, what are the long term consequences for victims, and how extensive has institutional abuse been?
With seemingly no end of historic abuse cases hitting the headlines across Britain, it’s unlikely to be the last we hear of St Ninian’s.
A series of hearings run by the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry are due to start in November. The inquiry, set up in October last year, will look into the abuse of children in care across Scotland. The Inquiry will report to Scottish Government Ministers within four years with recommendations for the future to improve the law, policies and practices in Scotland.
According to Victim Support Scotland – an independent charity whose trained staff and volunteers specifically help victims of crime – the impact of child abuse on many adult survivors can be hugely traumatic and devastating.
A spokesperson told The Courier: “Whilst individual coping mechanisms can vary, the long term effects of abuse for many victims can involve physical, behavioural, social and psychological issues.
“For some these can be debilitating and can lead to depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts or self-harm. For others their coping mechanism may be to rely on drugs and drink. Many may well also have to cope with the pain of injuries or live with the physical effects of scarring.”
One man who knows only too well the long term consequences of abuse is Dave Sharp, 57 – a former St Ninian’s resident from 1970 to 1976, now living in England – who has been fighting for justice for nearly 20 years.
He didn’t give testimony in court because the man who raped him at Falkland, Father Gerry Ryan, is dead.
Last September he was awarded a pay out from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for the crimes committed against him.
But whilst he is delighted with the sentencing, he still wants to hear a “meaningful apology” from the Catholic Church and the Christian Brothers and is organising a national campaign to try and achieve this.
He said dozens, if not hundreds of men in Scotland have had their lives “shattered” by such abuse.
He told The Courier: “For victims of historic abuse like this, we live with concrete slabs in our hearts. It weighs down every part of our lives. The Christian Brotherhood and Catholic Church know this and only they can take the slab out.”
Dave, who claims he was trafficked to Ireland and drugged then raped by multiple men whilst in the care of the Christian Brothers, says that recent media covered “does not begin to tell of the horrors” that went on in St Ninian’s and other institutions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
He says that even to this day, he hasn’t come to terms with the bullying by gangs or the sexual and mental abuse he says he suffered at the hands of at least one priest.
“It is very difficult to talk about the flashbacks that continue throughout the life of victims and throughout my life I have been very badly affected by the events of my childhood,” he said.
“One of the most difficult things to talk about for victims is the affect that the actual grooming has on their life and the guilt and the shame of actually at some stage enjoying what was happening because these people are so good at convincing you that what you are doing is right and proper.”
Dave, who blames the anger he carried around his whole life for a 20-year drug addiction and at least two spells in prison, said that only by becoming a Christian has he managed to “forgive” his abusers.
But he added: “I know that my life has been affected by the horrible things that went on in that place as well as a sickening run of bad luck in my life.
I have to say that my memories are very much distorted and just like most victims of child abuse I have actually questioned if these things really did happen.
“I think I can safely say that my saving grace is the fact that I became a Christian and through the power of God found the strength to forgive the people that done the terrible things to me. But the fight goes on. The Catholic Church tells us they send their love. But I feel victims have been abandoned and we need the public to realise that. “
Another man still traumatised by his experiences at St Ninian’s is Edinburgh-born grandfather Jon Swanson, 64, now of Livingston.
He resided at the school from 1964 to 1966 – long before the allegations associated with this particular court case – but recalls the regime as “brutal” even then.
Separated from his brother, he was sent there having been shifted around various residential homes from birth, and then later being badly beaten at home by his father.
“Falkland was brutal – the beatings, the abuse – just everything,” he told The Courier.
“I got the belt there quite a lot, for anything – the slightest little thing like talking. But we were young boys. We wanted a bit of a carry on.”
Jon, who recently gave evidence to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, said some of the Christian Brothers would come into the dormitories at night and check for “bed wetters”.
“I was a prolific bed wetter,” recalled Jon, who has been interviewed by police but has not yet had his case taken to court.
“They used to come in and feel under the sheets. There was no need for the Brothers to put their hands where they did. They were feeling inside. That was abuse as far as I was concerned. I didn’t respond to them. I just froze with fear.”
Aged 14, Jon was moved into a working men’s hostel in Edinburgh. But with no support and a feeling that the hostel was inappropriate for a 14 year old, he “went homeless” on the streets of Edinburgh.
He stole from shops to survive and was caught several times. With no fixed abode, no friends, and running the gauntlet of life on the streets, he was sent to Polmont borstal aged 16 and drifted in and out of prison thereafter.
“I was anti-social, anti-authority and trusted nobody,”he added.
But as he got older he became determined to turn his life around and during one shoplifting spree, he met the woman to whom he has now been married for 40 years.
“I met my Mrs whilst stealing from a shop in Edinburgh, “he revealed. “She knew I was thieving but she never bothered. We got speaking. She’s my rock now. We’ve been through a lot together. But I still suffer by what happened – and so do my family.”
Jon, now a father of three and grandfather, is pleased that there have been convictions linked to Falkland. Having blocked out the memories over the years, he is pleased to have been able to get his experiences “off my chest”. He has also had many meetings with other survivors.
But he reckons the Falkland convictions are just the “tip of the iceberg” and he has yet been able to find closure.
“The place was full of it,” he said. “I would hate to think the others have got away with it. We’ve had to suffer all our lives. It’s not been easy. It’s been a struggle.
“The whole system was wrong and I want answers. They took 14 years away I don’t get back. But it’s been my whole life. People say to me ‘why do you never smile’? I say ‘I can’t help it’.”
Today, the former St Ninian’s School building is occupied by the completely unrelated and award winning Falkland House School. For visitors walking past the splendid mansion set amid the stunning landscape of Falkland Estate, at the foot of the East Lomond, it’s difficult to comprehend what went on there all those years ago.
Most Falkland residents are shocked that the Christian Brothers regime was responsible for such heinous and depraved acts. Yet according to one businessman who asked not to be identified, some in the community remain “in denial” about what happened.
“Some older people tell me there were rumours as far back as 1960 about what was going on at the school, but nobody ever did anything about it because the Brotherhood were seen as ‘untouchable’ in those days,” he said.
Falkland Fife councillor David MacDiarmid has lived in the village for 25 years.
He revealed that one of his first cases when he became a councillor in 2007 involved a former pupil from St Ninian’s who claimed he had been gang-raped by two pupils in woods surrounding the school decades earlier.
He agreed to meet the former pupil at Fife House in Glenrothes.
“He then poured his heart out to me,” recalled the councillor, “telling me things I didn’t want to know.
“Effectively he had been gang raped by two pupils in the woods surrounding the school.
“He named both the pupils, one whose whereabouts was unknown and the other I believe was living in Dundee.
“He travelled from the Glasgow area by bus to tell me this story, and despite his obvious grief had been in mainstream schooling and was doing well.”
Councillor MacDiarmid was in contact with him a few times after that trying to set up a meeting with the police.
He was then advised by a fellow councillor to drop the case and leave it to the police.
“To be honest I was totally out of my depth,” he recalled. “As time goes on and more and more cases are exposed, I often think of him and wished that I had ignored the advice given to me.”
The councillor said if he had been asked for a comment about St Ninian’s 25 years ago, it would be of “utter disbelief”.
“Unfortunately over the last 10 years or so,” he added, “we have been bombarded with historical abuse cases, not only involving the many priests that have been found and charged, but cases involving other people that were trusted mostly by the public, namely television and radio “personalities”.
“Have we not become a wee bit sanitised by it all now, to the extent that almost nothing shocks us anymore?”