‘My childhood abuse horror’

Sidney Herdman (48).
Sidney Herdman (48).

A RICHHILL man who claims he and several others were abused as children in a Protestant Church-funded orphanage in County Wicklow is heading a campaign for justice.

Sidney Herdman (48), a printer with a partner and two children, lived in the now notorious Westbank Home in Greystones during the late 1960s and early 1970s after his mother moved from Northern Ireland to Dublin to give birth to him.

He claims he and other young boys and girls were abused and wants a full investigation along the lines of the Ryan Report into abuse in the Catholic Church.

“There was terrible physical, sexual and mental abuse, the scars of which I still wrestle with every day,” said Sidney.

The home was run by an Adeline Mathers who came from Portadown – she died in 1999. And while she was not involved in sexual abuse, Mr Herdman said, “She often beat us with electric cable and injected us if we wet the bed – she was a tyrant of a woman, who claimed to be a born-again Christian. We lived in constant fear.”

Protestant churches north of the border and the Republic’s Government have so far failed to take responsibility for what allegedly happened.

“The home was funded by Protestant churches from Northern Ireland, and was in the jurisdiction of the Republic, with neither taking responsibility for what went on – it was all swept under the carpet,” he said.

The main abusers, he claimed, were church people who used to travel to the home from the north, “and subjected young boys and girls, including myself, to physical, mental and sexual abuse, beginning with giving us sweets and money and then getting on with this awful abuse, which included rape of teenagers – they would come to our bedrooms and we knew what was coming next.”

He added that many of the children, who were left malnourished, were taken north to work for nothing, usually on farms, and that the funding came from the main churches, including the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodist and the Free Presbyterians.

“I have sought help from all these churches and met a brick wall every time, but to be fair, the churches gave the money with the best of intentions, unaware of what was going on,” he said.

As well as the Westbank Home, the Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland largely funded the notorious Bethany Home for mothers-and-babies in Dublin – mainly for unmarried mothers – and Sidney’s mother languished there for a couple of years in the 1960s. Pressure is on, too, for an investigation there, where there are a reported 219 unmarked graves, with a large proportion of babies having died.

Said Sidney, “Now that victims of abuse within Catholicism have access to a full inquiry, we must have similar redress. The Catholic Church is looking into allegations of abuse in the Christian Brothers, Sisters of Mercy and Magdalene Laundries establishments, and we want the same.”

He recalled that, in order to raise funds for the home, young children were taken up north to sing in various churches – “sometimes as late as 11pm, but to be honest that was an escape, as we were treated kindly in those churches.”

He was known as ‘Sidney Mathers’ until he was six and was then made aware of his birth mother and became ‘Sidney Herdman’. He lived for a number of years with his mother, and they moved to England later on. And he spoke of “a kind Christian Portadown family” who fostered him from time to time, “and one of whom I regard as a mother, they’ve been so kind to me, but I’m not revealing their identity”.

Sidney stepped up his campaign when the findings of the Ryan Report in the Republic opened the door to redress the wide range of child abuse within the Catholic Church. He felt a deep sense of injustice and discrimination when the Protestant institution were “excluded and ignored”.

He has canvassed politicians and church people north and south, especially within the NI Assembly – like Industry Minister Arlene Foster, DRD Minister Danny Kennedy and William Irwin MLA, the latter two being representatives within the Newry-Armagh Constituency, which includes Sidney’s home village of Richhill.

They are all putting pressure on Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice in the Dail, to include both Westbank and Bethany in the overall inquiry. Said Mr Irwin, “I have met Mr Herdman’s pressure group and have written to Mr Shatter. He has replied that he has not reached a final decision, but is giving serious consideration to the issues involved. I will keep the pressure on.”

Mr Kennedy said, “These are serious allegations, and these victims have been left in limbo, with most coming from Northern Ireland, yet having lived in the Republic’s jurisdiction.

“Both seem to be washing their hands of the situation, and it is important these people are given the chance to air their concerns. That is why the Assembly is keeping the pressure on the Dail.”

Mr Herdman said he was seeing Ian Paisley Junior today (Friday) adding that the least they deserved was the same consideration as the Catholic victims, who now have their full inquiry “and are being listened to after all these years, and we won’t stop until we received justice.”