Polish Catholic order to compensate former care home resident over physical and emotional abuse

Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]

July 25, 2023

By Derek Scally

A Catholic religious order in Poland has been ordered to pay 500,000 zloty (€113,000) in compensation to a 31-year-old man for physical and emotional abuse – including rape – he suffered as a child in a religious-run residential care home.

Taking the case was a 31-year-old man identified only as Paweł who sought one million zloty (€226,000) in compensation and a monthly pension to cover the cost of lifelong medical treatment.

He was just 18 months old when he was handed over to the Special Care Centre in the town of Zabrze, 100km northwest of Krakow in southern Poland, run by the Sisters of Mercy of St Borromeo.

“The sisters beat us for everything: bad grades, wetting the bed, laughing, sometimes they would assign older boys to punish younger ones by saying ‘he is yours’ or ‘teach him a lesson’,” said Paweł.

Established in 1893 as a residential home for children with special needs, the religious-run centre was not audited by local authorities until 2007.

That investigation followed the rape and murder of an eight-year-old boy by two former inmates of the Zabrze school. During questioning they recounted abuse they suffered in the school at the hands of older boys and Sr Bernadette and Sr Francisca, identified by authorities as Agnieszka F and Bogumiła L respectively.

In 2011 the two women were found guilty of physical assault and actions that enabled paedophilia. Sr Bernadette was sentenced to two years in prison while Sr Francisca was given an eight-month suspended sentence.

In total, Paweł, who took the compensation case, spent nearly 13 years at the centre. He was just six years old when older boys raped him for the first time; later he tried to end his life with an overdose of pills.

As well as beatings and rape by other boys, he said Sr Bernadette beat him with a wooden hanger: “I don’t remember why. The worst were the blows to the head. It was as if she wanted to get inside.”

He was removed from the school in 2006 when teachers noticed bruises on his body and believed his claims that they were the result of beatings by the nuns.

Despite the revelations in 2007, and a lengthy newspaper reportage into the home called Will God Forgive Sr Bernadette?, the home did not close until 2015.

“There were of course good nuns, too,” said Paweł. “But those who were under the influence of Sr Bernadette tormented us.”

The high-profile compensation award – the first of its kind for residential care homes – opens the door to further financial claims against religious orders in Poland. Continental law leaves institutions liable for crimes committed by employees in their service.

Three years ago Poland’s supreme court, in a final ruling, ordered a Catholic religious order pay compensation of one million zloty and an 800 zloty (€181) monthly pension to a woman repeatedly raped by an order priest. The Sisters of Mercy of St Borromeo has yet to say whether it will appeal the compensation ruling.