Orphanage Abuse Claim Rejected
August 12, 2006
A woman who sued Catholic nuns for $550,000 claiming they were negligent in caring for her and thus caused her physical and emotional abuse has lost her case.
In the High Court at Wellington, Justice Marion Frater has rejected claims that the woman, whose name is suppressed, was sexually abused by a priest while at St Joseph's Orphanage Upper Hutt. She had also claimed a nun slapped the side of her head so hard that her eardrum burst.
Some discipline and control at the orphanage was "borderline – and certainly unacceptable by today's standards", but at the time it was seen as an excellent standard of care, Justice Frater said.
However, she said she did not believe the woman, 46, a mother of two living in Australia, had deliberately made up allegations about her time in Catholic care in the 1960s and 70s.
"I accept most if not all her allegations have a basis in fact."
Justice Frater had no doubt the woman was sexually abused, but could not be sure of the details.
She could not be certain which of the woman's memories were soundly based and which were not.
The woman had been volatile giving evidence, often screaming so much that the court had to adjourn.
The judge rejected a claim from the woman's sister that she had been "exorcised" at the orphanage.
Some of the people accused in the case of having committed various forms of abuse are now having counselling for stress.
Former director of Catholic Social Services John Consedine, a counsellor, said yesterday the stress of being falsely accused had taken its toll on people who had been generous providing homes for young children.
"I think she has had a very unfortunate life and had awful trauma, but what we believe is that it was not our fault and we did not contribute to it."
The nuns' spokeswoman, Sister Clare Vaughan, said the period since 2001, when the woman filed her claim, had been a time of anxiety for all the sisters. They were relieved the case was over.
Justice Frater found the woman's troubled childhood – she and her six siblings were put into care when her parents separated – was a significant contributor to her current mental state. That early fragility probably influenced her later experiences.
But Justice Frater said Catholic Social Services took adequate steps to address her needs, and given the lack of knowledge about the signs of sexual abuse, they could not be criticised for failing to recognise that she may have been abused.
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