Legacy of abuses by the church

By Fiona Forde

May 31, 2009 /iol.co.az

As Patrick Mellet read through the Ryan Report last week, there was hardly a word of it that didn't resonate with him.

The report documented 85 years of abuse at the hands of Irish Catholic priests and nuns in the now-defunct orphanages in Ireland. It all sounded chillingly familiar to him. Yet he couldn't find any solace in the fact that it was now all out in the open. Because the Ryan Report is not about Mellet.

It's not about the hundreds, maybe thousands, of South Africans who were abused at the hands of Irish missionaries here. It refers only to the victims of the Irish-based clergy.

And that's wrong, he says.

"I'm not looking for money. I'm not looking for some kind of contrition. I'm not looking for revenge, or anything like that.

"I want recognition of the fact that the abuse of the Irish Catholic Church was exported all over the world, that there were victims right here in South Africa and the abuses were as bad as the abuses in Ireland."

Mellet's mother, a single woman in her early 40s when he was born, came from a broken family in District Six, Cape Town. Due to apartheid her prospects for rearing a child were grim. So she placed her son in one foster home after another until she eventually found a place for him at a nearby children's home, run by Irish nuns.

Now 53, Mellet is reluctant to name the home, because "it has changed so much since I was there and I don't want to ruin the good reputation it now has".

Back then it was home to about 60 children and teenagers and a similar number of elderly folk because the home doubled as an old-age hospice. That was in 1964. He was seven. And he stayed there until 1968.

The abuse started the day he set foot in the place - a psychological and physical violence he could never have imagined.

"It starts with trying to break you down, emotionally and psychologically," Patrick recalled, as he began to speak in the present tense.

"They tell us we come from the gutter. That we're worthless. You are somebody's throwaway."

Before long his own sense of self-worth was shattered, made worse by the physical violence he endured at their hands.

"With the fist, with the hand, they come at us," he said. "Kicking. Pulling us off the ground by our hair. Lifting us up by our ears. Dragging us by the ears with their fingernails so that the flesh becomes raw.

Bruises, cuts and welts were a familiar sight. Whenever they were really bad his mother would not be allowed to visit.

It wasn't that she didn't know about the abuses, it was just that there was nothing she could do about it. There was nowhere else for him to go. He began to feel he was, indeed, just someone's throwaway child.

He experienced no sexual abuse, directly, at least. But he watched three other children of his fellow dwellers being sexually abused by one of the old men who lived there.
Each of them was in turn reprimanded by the nuns. They were bothering the elderly folk. They shouldn't have done it. It was their fault. And with those words, the victims would so easily become the perpetrators. Mellet was 11 when he left and he knew his life would never be the same again.

"You are always haunted by these things," he says. "You fear they'll come back some day."

Over the years he has pulled himself together. He fought against apartheid and spent 15 years in exile. In many ways, this helped him - fighting against an enormous injustice and seeing it all somehow come right in 1994 - although his own past never would.

All his adult life he felt he was never properly understood, save by those who had endured the same torture. But he didn't keep in touch with the other children after he left the home.

A few years ago a film The Magdalen Sisters was released about the orphanages in Ireland and Mellet dragged just about everyone he knew to see it so that they would finally understand what he had gone through.

The Ryan Report should have had the same therapeutic effect on him. Instead it sobered him. Because it didn't contain a single reference to the South African victims.

Mellet feels the silence needs to be broken now in South Africa.

"The Catholic Church in South Africa needs to speak up. There are a hell of a lot of broken people around here because of what the Irish missionaries did," he says.


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