The Scottish child abuse inquiry is to investigate claims that the bodies of at least 400 children from a home once run by Catholic nuns are buried in an unmarked mass grave.
The high infant mortality rate has raised concerns about conditions at Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark, which was operated by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.
The institution, which looked after children from broken homes, opened in 1864 and closed in 1981. More than 11,000 children stayed at the orphanage over that period.
Records reveal that most of the deaths were due to natural causes, mainly from diseases such as TB, pneumonia and pleurisy. About a third of the victims were under the age of five, and the majority of the deaths occurred between 1870 and 1930.
Former residents of the orphanage uncovered a burial plot containing the remains of a number of children at nearby St Mary’s cemetery in 2003.
Frank Docherty and Jim Kane, who both died earlier this year, alleged that many of those who passed through Smyllum Park were subjected to physical abuse, including beatings, punches and public humiliations. Both men also believed that the number of deaths was far higher than the 120 previously acknowledged by the Catholic order.
An inquiry by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and the Sunday Post newspaper examined death certificates in archives and found 402 children from Smyllum Park. Only two were found to have been buried elsewhere. The remainder are thought to have been laid to rest in St Mary’s cemetery, a mile away from the former home.
The recorded death rate, according to the reports, is calculated to have been, in some periods, around three times the average for children in Scotland.
The suggestion that children were put into an unmarked mass grave echoes the public outcry over the recent discovery of the remains of 800 babies and children at a former Catholic care home in Tuam, in the west of Ireland.
Like Tuam, the row over what happened at Smyllum Park focuses not only on the way in which children were buried but the supposedly strict, punitive regime said to have been operated by nuns.
One of the deaths recorded at the Scottish orphanage is that of Francis McColl, who died in 1961, aged 13. His death certificate indicates he died from a brain haemorrhage. His brother Eddie had heard that he was struck on the head by a golf club. He has told researchers that he was never able to find any trace of where his brother was buried.
Two representatives of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul gave evidence to the Scottish child abuse inquiry earlier this summer. They said they could find no records of abuse. The nuns declined to comment on how many people were buried in the mass grave.
In a statement given to the BBC last week, the order said they were “cooperating fully” with the child abuse inquiry and believed that was the “best and most appropriate forum for such investigations”.
They said: “As Daughters of Charity our values are totally against any form of abuse and thus, we offer our most sincere and heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered any form of abuse whilst in our care.”
The order has been granted the status of core participant in the inquiry, which is expected to hear evidence about its homes at a hearing in November.
The Scottish inquiry – which is only investigating the provision of residential care – is more narrowly focused than the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales.
A spokesman for the Scottish inquiry confirmed that the allegations surrounding the mass grave at Smyllum Park would be one of the subjects it examined.
A spokesperson for the Catholic church in Scotland said the Daughters of Charity operated as a separate organisation. “The death of children in care is always tragic,” the spokesperson said. “Any suggestion that the deaths of some children were caused by anything other than natural causes should be investigated to the fullest extent possible.
“The Catholic church has never had any responsibility for or ability to place children in care: that has always been and remains a matter for the statutory authorities who placed children in care and were subsequently responsible for their welfare.”
The spokesman said local priests had participated in services held at the graveyard in memory of children from Smyllum Park orphanage buried there.
White Flowers Alba, a victims group that has helped the investigation into Smyllum Park orphanage, said: “The true scale of the horrors of Smyllum long hidden by the Roman Catholic church are only being now revealed.
“This is a horror we have worked for over number years to have exposed, spending many hours in harrowing interviews, providing support & care for those still suffering today from what they witnessed & experienced. White Flowers Alba is facilitating support for those affected by this tragedy.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry said: “For many months, the Inquiry has been gathering evidence from survivors and a range of other witnesses and continues to do so…. On November 28 the first case study of the hearings will begin. It will consider the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.”