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Medical view 'inconsistent' with Goldenbridge abuse

Added on November 5, 2004

A SENIOR surgeon who worked at the hospital where children from the Goldenbridge orphanage were treated during the 1950s has said that he cannot corroborate the description of the most severe injury inflicted on Christine Buckley. She claims injuries were inflicted on her by beatings at the hands of Sister Xavieria, the Sister of Mercy nun at the centre of the controversy over alleged abuse at the orphanage.
Buckley, who was the subject of the Dear Daughter documentary on Goldenbridge broadcast by RTE television last month was among 18 former residents who alleged physical and verbal abuse by Xavieria. Their claims have since been supported by dozens of former residents. But in the medical opinion of J B Prendiville, a surgeon attached to Dr Steeven's, the hospital which treated Goldenbridge children from 1955 until its closure in 1987, Buckley's claim in the documentary that her leg was split open from her hip to her knee alter a beating by Xavieria is difficult to comprehend.
This has added to controversy over the claims made by Buckley and others against Xavieria. The nun denied abusing the children on RTE's Prime Time programme last week and a number of former Goldenbridge residents have supported her. Now Buckley says she is appalled that the abuse is denied by Xavieria, questioned by medics, and missed as exaggeration some former residents.
Buckley said she was viciously beaten by Xavieria after it was discovered she had smuggled a letter out to a newspaper with the bread delivery man. The nun, she claims her repeatedly on the legs with a stick, using such force that her thigh burst open from her hip to her knee, leaving a scar that stretched from her buttock to the end of her thigh.
She says she recalls being brought to the hospital covered in blood. She was treated in casualty, or "the dispensary'' as it was known to the children. She recalls her wound being sutured and dressed ? she believed she received 80 to 120 stitches. She was not admitted as a patient to the hospital, and after her wounds were dressed was sent back to the orphanage. Prendiville said he cannot recall ever treating a Goldenbridge child with a lacerated thigh. He said an injury needing such extensive stitching would not have been treated in Casualty. Standard medical practice would have necessitated that such an injury would require extensive surgery under a general anaesthetic, and a child with such an injury would have been detained as a patient at the hospital. In his experience, injuries to limbs caused by blunt instruments do not cause significant lacerations, but are more liable to cause fractures and muscular injuries ? a medical view supported by R B Fisher, consultant at Belfast City hospital with 10 years experience of treating the victims of punishment beatings.
As a specialist in soft-tissue injury and burns Prendiville said that such an injury would have been referred to him by medical staff; since it was an unusual case he would have undoubtedly recorded it for academic purposes. But he has no record or memory of any such case although he concedes he might well have been away at the time Buckley's leg injury brought her to Dr Steeven's.
Moreover, he has not seen the scars she still bears on her leg. His assessment is based on what was the standard practice in the casualty department, of which he was in charge. Neither he, nor three other medics who worked at Dr Steeven's in the 1950s, can recall anything suspicious among the Goldenbridge children who regularly attended the hospital with typical childhood ailments.
There is no documentation to chart what happened to these children. Medical records were destroyed in a fire after the hospital closed. The doctors are casting their minds back to incidents that happened more than 40 years ago, a time when responses to child abuse were generally muted. And some former residents of the orphanage have emphasised the repeated warnings, prior to hospital visits, that they should lie about the cause of their injuries.
Buckley's testimony has been supported by dozens of former residents of Goldenbridge and another institution. St Kyran's where Xavieria also worked. The nun herself reportedly wrote to a friend "The allegations all nearly have a basic bit of truth but are blown up to an unbelievable state."
One of the more chilling allegations to surface was that an 11-month-old baby died four days after she was put into Goldenbridge. When the infant's father, Myles Howe. returned from England and went to St Ultan's hospital, he was told by a nurse that his baby had burns on her knees but the staff had got her too late to save her. The postmortem said the child died of dysentery.
The Howes have never been satisfied by the official response. Prendiville recalls that St Ultan's was established largely for dealing with bowel complaints such as dysentery or gastroenteritis, a common illness among children which at that time could reach epidemic proportions in Dublin. He speculated that Marian Howe was more than likely admitted to St Ultan's with a bowel complaint. "I wouldn't say that burns of that size on a child's legs would have been the cause of death. They didn't treat burns in St Ultan's. If the baby died from a burn, there would have to be an inquest. But failure to communicate information is a defect in many hospitals," he said.
But if the burns were not the cause of Marian's death, asks Howe, why was he told by Xavieria that it was an "accident" and not dysentery that killed his child? Why, on his arrival at St Ultan's to see his dead child, did a nurse indicate to him that his daughter had died of burns? And why could nobody explain to him the large burn marks on the sides of her knees?
The outrage that followed the Prime Time programme was directed as much at Xavieria's denials of abuse as at an apparently "soft" line of questioning. The allegation that a baby in her charge died of burns was not put to her on the programme. The reason was that after researching the allegation, the Prime Time team could find no evidence to support it. according to an RTE source. The reporter did ask Xavieria about the incident, he said, but her response was edited out of the programme.
Both Buckley and Dear Daughter producer Louis Lentin, regard the Prime Time report as an effort by RTE to undermine the documentary. "Sister Xavieria is perfectly entitled to any right of reply, but this programme bent over backwards to be reverential," said Lentin. "The facts were not put to her in a strong, investigative manner." Additional reporting: Jan Battles

Sunday Times 28/04/96

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