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Claims of abuse shatter image of devout Auntie's big, happy family

CHILDREN raised in an Irish home by a matriarch known as 'Auntie' have made disturbing allegations of illegal adoption, hidden records and injections and beatings as punishment for bed-wetting.

Born-Again Christian Adeline Mathers won plaudits for single-handedly rearing up to 50 children at a time in a small, privately run Protestant orphanage in Greystones, Co Wicklow, from 1946 right up to 1999 when she died.

But her wholesome image as a doting mother-figure is shattered in a Would You Believe documentary by residents who claim they were beaten with electrical flexes and injected for wetting the bed.

Adeline Mathers won the Person of the Year award in the Wicklow town toward the end of her life for taking in dozens of infants, some as young as 10 days old, and steering them into adulthood in the Westbank orphanage she turned into a family home.

While many local people speak glowingly about Miss Mathers, the former residents of the orphanage family are split down the middle over abuse claims that are currently being investigated by the gardai and the HSE.

Former resident Colm Begley says in the RTE documentary that he lived in fear of Miss Mathers during his childhood.

He says: "She was a very angry woman. She was a very powerful woman. She would stand up and preach that God was with her. Behind closed doors she was abusing us.

"People used to get hit with electric flexes and dog leads. I remember particularly getting injections for wetting the bed and getting hit with an electric flex first of all and then the injection and then you were made wash in a tin bath outside where all the other people would actually be.

"This was until I was around 13 or 14 years of age. We don't know what was in the injection."

Colm got to know a fellow resident in Westbank called Andrew Yates. Years later, long after they had left the orphanage and gone their separate ways, he discovered that they were brothers.

After he left the orphanage, Colm was curious about his background and how he came to be there. He returned to the orphanage and made inquiries, but Adeline Mathers lied to him and did not reveal that Andrew was his brother. He pursued the matter through other avenues, and eventually discovered the truth.

Two other former residents also claim in the documentary that they got injections which they believed were a punishment rather than a remedy for bed-wetting.

The documentary reveals that residents in the home are divided over the abuse claims which are currently being investigated by gardai and the HSE.

Resident Dorothy McKeown said she had only happy memories of her time in the God-fearing Wicklow home.

"Auntie never ever wanted us to feel like orphans. I knew I was different because I was in a family that was massive.

"There was over 50 of us when I was growing up but it was just all so normal.

"There was no staff in our home. We all just mucked in as a family.

"Auntie was our mother. We were all brothers and sisters. We all fought, we all shared, we all cried. I just loved my childhood.

"The Bible was our road-map and the only book that we used growing up in our Christian faith."

Miss Mathers was a Born-Again Christian who accepted no funding from the State or mainstream churches and even Westbank's Board of Trustees were kept carefully at arm's length.

The documentary reveals her practice of giving most of the children her own surname of Mathers but a number of residents tell of their battle to find their true identity and access to their records from the matriarchal figure.

While local people in Greystones speak fondly of the mother figure who sent the children to some of the best secondary schools in the country, eight people from the late Sixties to the Nineties said they either witnessed or were themselves subjected to regular physical abuse.

Residents also spoke of a cult-like, God-fearing atmosphere in the house run by the devout Born-Again Christian.

There is documentary evidence that former resident and Special Olympics gold medallist, Kenneth Moore, was badly marked by a beating by the matriarch for bed-wetting in the Eighties.

Kenneth Moore, who is now 45 and lives in Donegal with his birth mother, says his teacher discovered the marks on his back from the assault by Miss Mathers when he was a young teenager.

He says: "One morning I got up and I was told to stand outside the window in a steel box and she put a bit of water over me and washed me and then she hit me with the electric flex of the kettle.

"I had to take the punishment for wetting the bed. There was no point in talking to anybody because who was going to believe you?"

He says Miss Mathers told him to say he fell down the steps but the welts on his back were discovered when he went swimming with the school the next day and the matter was reported to the health board.

"Anyone who does that to a child, I wouldn't class them as a mother," he says. "I wouldn't say there was an awful lot of love. You were never hugged or praised for anything you did."

Even though the matter was reported to the State in the Eighties, it did not spark a full investigation of the home, according to the RTE probe.

The documentary also reveals how a number of adoptions arranged by Miss Mathers during her 60 years' running the children's home were highly unorthodox.

According to her rules, children could only be handed over to be raised by strict evangelical Christians, preferably of the Brethren tradition.

Former resident Colleen Anderson was raised by a devout Scottish couple who were close friends of Miss Mathers but she claims her adoption was illegal.

She says: "I think she passed on many children. She was like an agency in herself.

"I discovered as a Roman Catholic baby I was handed over to a Protestant institution and from there to Protestant parents.

"I'm aware now that that would have caused some sort of uproar in the country of my birth.

"I am definitely aware there was a bit of a furore in Scotland because I was regarded as an illegal alien child from another country.

"They were initially told to hand me back."

Her new parents, Jack and Ena Budge, took two years to sort out the paperwork to adopt Colleen but the documentary reveals they broke Irish law by removing Colleen from the State.

"It was an illegal act," says Colleen.

"According to the statutes at the time, no child of a marriage could be put up for adoption and this was highly illegal."

She says there was a God-fearing atmosphere in the Westbank home which she regularly visited on holidays.

She says: "You could hardly get in the door and you were asked, 'are you saved?'"

Would You Believe will be shown on RTE One tonight at 9.30pm.

Sunday Independent