My dream ‘family holiday’ aged 6 saw me abandoned in convent, beaten with coat hangers & sexually abused by senior nun – The Sun
I WAS just six when the fancy car pulled up outside my family's poverty-stricken home, and my dad told me with a smile: "You're going on your holidays."
It was a dream come true – yet as I sank into the car's leather seats, I had no idea my first ever holiday would turn out to be three years of horrific abuse and torture at a convent from hell.
Beaten and molested with coat hangers
During my time at the Merseyside convent, my innocence was brutally ripped away – as I was repeatedly beaten and sexually abused with wooden coat hangers by the sadistic nun in charge.
I was also forced to have my hair shaved, given a cruel nickname and told I was an "orphan". If I dared to reply, "but I have parents", I was dragged away and beaten in cramped 'torture rooms'.
It was a nightmare ordeal that still haunts me to this day. Yet it's one I could have never imagined facing during my loving, but cripplingly poor, childhood in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
Growing up in the 1950s, I knew my parents Fred and Kathleen weren't well off.
Our home was a cockroach-infested, rented terrace with no carpet, a smell of damp, and just one bed, which my parents and I shared with my big brother Freddie and baby brother Peter.
Our only toilet, an old-fashioned ‘tippler’, was outside in the backyard. There was no flushing system, so the yard constantly reeked of sewage. On sunny days, the whole house stank.
Unsurprisingly, our poverty led to malnutrition: sometimes we'd have jam butties three times a day while, at other times, we'd simply get a clip round the ear and an empty belly.
Yet while our stomachs growled, our hearts didn't.
We were loved and our parents tried their best.
Mum was a deeply religious Irish Catholic – and with almost every year that passed, a new sibling joined our family. By the time I was five, I had six siblings and a seventh on the way.
The church discouraged contraception because “all children are a gift” – yet with Dad out working as a rag and bone man, Mum began drowning in a thick sludge of despair and exhaustion.
Before long, she was too tired to make sure I went to school.
I can still recall one morning where, unable to find a pair of knickers, I shoved my tiny legs through the armholes of a white vest, pulled up my school skirt and shuffled out of the house.
Eventually, we started receiving visits from charity workers, social services and the police.
I felt a rush of excitement as Dad declared Freddie and I were being whisked away on holiday. I didn't dwell on the fact that his smile didn't quite reach his eyes
Then, in August 1959, the mysterious, posh-looking car turned up at our home.
I felt a rush of excitement as Dad declared Freddie, then seven, and I were being whisked away on our first ever "holiday". I didn't dwell on the fact that his smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
As we were driven through the streets by two wealthy-looking women, I couldn't contain my delight. "Might be off to the seaside!" I told Freddie. "Might be a caravan. Or a hotel!"
In my child's mind, there was no doubt we'd be back from our getaway soon.
But in reality, my brother and I were headed for life in an abusive cesspit: Mum and Dad couldn't afford to keep us, so the church had stepped in to care for us as "children of God".
From the outside, Greenfield House, our Lady’s Convent, in Billinge, St Helens, was a magnificent stone building. I thought it looked like a mansion by the sea.
But inside its walls, I discovered it was anything but a holiday destination – with compassion and shelter replaced by a horrifying ritual of physical, sexual and mental abuse.
As soon as we arrived, Freddie and I were separated, before I was pushed into a wooden chair to have my lovely, long brown hair butchered with shears and shaved off.
I also had my beloved jumble sale clothes torn from me.
The convent was anything but a holiday destination. Compassion and shelter were replaced by a horrifying ritual of physical, sexual and mental abuse
That night, I begged a statue of the Virgin Mary, "Help me, please," before crying myself to sleep.
The following morning, I was ordered to scrub the wooden parquet flooring in silence along with the other convent girls. It wasn't long before my little fingers were red raw and bleeding.
But I knew I had to keep going under the hawk-like stare of Sister Isobel O’Brien – the cruel nun in charge of the girls, who had already started pinching my arm and mockingly calling me "Kibby".
Perhaps the nickname was from my then-surname, Kibblewhite. But it just wasn't me.
Punished for curiosity
Later, in the dining room, I asked Sister Isobel: "Will I be going home today?"
Spinning around, she spat back: “You have no home. You are a Child of God, Kibby.”
It was a traumatic first 24 hours – and far worse was yet to come.
In following days, weeks and months, I was force-fed raw eggs by the nun to 'build up my strength' and violently beaten every time I plucked up the courage to ask a question.
Often, my curiosity and fear would result in Sister Isobel screeching: "Get Kibby!"
In response, the older convent girls would grab me, drag me into a 'torture room', pin me down to a bed and batter me with wooden coat hangers while I wet myself through sheer terror.
The attacks left me screaming in pain and my legs bloodied. Each time, Sister Isobel would watch coldly from the door, her pinched, razor-sharp features devoid of any emotion.
Eventually, the girls began sexually abusing me, too.
One, or sometimes two, of them would crawl into my bed at night and hiss, "We’re training you up, ready for the boys." They molested me and forced my hand under their nightdresses.
Their visits were so appalling that I'd often be physically sick afterwards.
I now believe they were taking place under Sister Isobel's instruction.
Sister Isobel wielded a coat hanger above me like an executioner, her tongue flicking across her lips, before lifting my skirt and pushing my underwear aside
On one particularly horrendous day, the nun herself also sexually abused me.
I can still remember her wielding a coat hanger above me like an executioner, her tongue flicking across her lips, before lifting my skirt and pushing my underwear aside.
Finally, after the attack was over, the nun leaned over and brushed her cheek against mine. I felt a long wiry hair from her chin touch my face. It was sickening.
As time went on, I started to wonder whether the abuse was normal. Perhaps it was part of the pain of growing up? Of course, I now know that is far from the case.
It was only in October 1962, when I was nine, that my ordeal finally came to an end.
The convent closed down and I returned home, feeling almost drunk with triumph.
There, I was reunited with Freddie and my parents – who were as painfully poor as ever and swept our time in the convent under the carpet without an apology or even a regret.
But still, snuggling in bed with my siblings that first night back, I felt totally content.
At last, I was free.
From abuse victim to proud mum
Since then, 60 years have passed and a lot has changed.
I've become a mum myself: I have a 46-year-old son and 45-year-old twins, as well as a boy called Shane who sadly died from cot death when he was three months old.
I've also known true love, after meeting my husband, Jack Hargreaves.
An intelligent, sensitive man with a genuine smile, Jack showed me what kindness was. I was heartbroken when, in August 2010, he died suddenly from a heart attack in the bath.
Although Jack knew I had been mistreated at the convent, I had been reluctant to tell him the full story in case I upset him. “It was dreadful," was all I'd say when he asked.
I was horrified when police told me I wasn't the only child Sister Isobel had allegedly abused at the convent… but gut-wrenchingly, she won't face justice
In fact, it's only in recent years that I've found the courage of reveal the extent of my abuse.
I was horrified when police told me I wasn't the only child Sister Isobel had allegedly abused during her reign at the convent: others have come forward with their own stories of suffering.
But gut-wrenchingly, the nun will not face justice.
“Our inquiries show that Sister Isobel has died,” an officer told me in late 2015. “We want you to know that, if she had been alive, she would most certainly have faced criminal charges.”
It was a devastating blow – yet one that I've made my peace with.
While I still have nightmares of coat hangers and wandering hands, I have now forgiven Sister Isobel and enjoy spending time with my children and nine grandchildren, who I adore.
I've even written a new book about my experience, The Convent.
And after speaking at length to a solicitor, with Jack's ashes at my side for moral support, I've launched legal action against the section of the Catholic Church that Sister Isobel was a member of.
The Archdiocese of Birmingham has been handling all safeguarding claims.
Last year, the Archdiocese said it had publicly apologised to all victims of child sex abuse involving the church during the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
My case is moving slowly – and I've been warned it will take years.
But coming forward has been hugely cathartic for me.
I hope my story will encourage other abuse survivors to find the courage to seek help.
- The Convent by Marie Hargreaves, with Ann and Joe Cusack, is published by Mirror Books on May 14. Available from bookshops and via Amazon
How do I report child sexual abuse?
YOU can talk directly to the police or your local children's social services – and this can be anonymous.
You can also get advice or report your concerns anonymously to the NSPCC by phoning their free helpline on 0808 800 5000 (or you can report sexual abuse to them via email or online).
The NSPCC has more information and advice about child sexual abuse – which affects one in 20 children in the UK – on its website.
If you are concerned about your own thoughts or behaviour towards children, you can phone Stop It Now! in confidence on 0808 1000 900 or email [email protected]
If you are a child and someone is sexually abusing you, you can get help and advice from ChildLine – phone 0800 1111, calls are free and confidential.
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