Testimony of Marta, former resident of Specjalny Ośrodek Wychowawczy (Special Care Centre) in Zabrze, Poland
I have scars on each of my eyebrows. One of them bears witness to a clash with Sister Bernadetta when she pulled me by my hair and I hit a radiator with so much force that I lost consciousness. The second was created after I struck an aquarium during a struggle with Sister Monika. I saw Sister Franciszka beat my little brother, so I insulted her. She slapped me in my face and scratched my cheek with her fingernails, which caused a third mark which I still bear today. None of the nuns has ever apologized me.
My ordeal at the Specjalny Ośrodek Wychowawczy (Special Care Centre) in Zabrze, Poland run by Kongregacja Sióstr Miłosierdzia św. Karola Boromeusza (Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo) lasted four years. Today I think that my life back there can be described as great torment and that my faith in all church-related institutions was shattered. I could never again imagine that a priest or a nun would offer me any meaningful help.
I remember every detail from the day when my five-year-old brother and I were taken away from our parents and brought to the Special Care Centre in Zabrze run by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo. It was in September 2004, shortly before 8 o’clock in the morning. I took my white and navy-blue backpack and headed off for school when a police officer approached me at the stairway asking if I was Marta.
As the only girl with ginger hair in the neighbourhood, I was easily recognizable. He asked me to come back home and briefly explained that my brother and I would be taken to another school for two weeks. Soon social care workers arrived and informed our parents in private that we would be separated and placed in a care centre. We did not pack any clothes. We did not take any toys. We were driven directly to the Special Care Centre in Zabrze.
A new home
Once we arrived, the very first thing I saw was a statue of crucified Jesus on large white cross on a pink background towering over a massive wooden entrance door. I immediately thought that it was a monastery and felt terrified. I understood that I had been lied to and would have to run away. When I saw the nuns, I began to cry.
Despite the fact that my brother and I were overcome with fear, no one sat down with us to explain that we could not stay with our parents because the situation at home was dire. No one told us that we would be taken care of and that we could feel safe and secure there. We were just thrown into that place: “This is your brother’s group. This is your group. The door has been closed”. Since boys and girls lived in different wings of the building, the contact with my brother was limited to the minimum and I was able to talk with him only occasionally.
I suffered ill-treatment at the hands of the nuns for the first time when I asked Sister Monika if I could get some other drink than chocolate milk, as I simply didn’t like milk products. She snapped that she didn’t care and told me to eat everything that I was given, because otherwise I would be force-fed. This wasn’t an empty threat. Sisters would forcibly open my mouth trying to push in the food, but they failed, because I was a strong child and managed to wrench myself out of their arms. But then, I had to sit down at the table until my meal was finshed.
The next day I would be given leftovers, and then again all the products they knew I was not able to swallow, because I did not like them. Consequently, I stopped eating for a week and only when I was so weak that I started to faint did they give me meals that I would eat.
The Sisters were perfectly familiar with our food preferences and they would deliberately give us meals we disliked. We would then secretly exchange some products among ourselves, or put them into our pockets to throw them away later. We simply did everything to make sure that all the food disappeared from our plates.
The Borromean Sisters would beat me all over my body using every tool they had at their disposal, such as wooden rulers or carpet beaters. I remember trying to protect myself from the hits and also fighting back, so I had bruises on my hands, legs, shoulders, as well as black eyes. They would mostly beat us in our bedrooms and lie to the other children that we just fell unwell. But everyone knew that we were left there in tears and would fall asleep crying.
Sometimes we were punished in front of other children. I was put in the corner where I had to kneel on dried peas holding a bowl of water above my head. If I was naughty, a Sister would give me a cold bath, lock me up for hours in a dark basement or puncture my skin with a pin if I would fall asleep during a mass. I saw a teenage girl being hit in her face with a wooden coathanger as a punishment for wearing make up. Another girl was tied with jump ropes to a column with a soap pushed into her mouth and sealed in with duck tape as a penalty for swearing. Whenever I wet my bed, I would be beaten. I don’t recollect a single day without physical or psychological violence.
Letters torn to pieces
The Borromean Sisters would constantly humiliate us verbally. We were insulted as children who came from pathological families. They told us none would ever love us. I will never forget when I was told that I was condemned to hell, because I was an orphan. This hurt me deeply, because I knew very well that I had parents. I missed them very much and remembered going to Sister Bernadetta’s office to write letters to my mum on this beautiful stationery with teddy bears asking her to visit my brother and me. But then, the other day, I was sent to her office to bring her something and I found them all in the trash torn into small pieces. I will never forget this feeling of betrayal and loneliness, because my parents had never visited us.
My brother told me that the Borromean Sisters encouraged older boys to sexually abuse younger ones by locking them up in a separate room where they were forced to take their clothes off. My brother still cannot talk about those events and I fear that he might be one of the victims.
I tried to escape six times. Once, along with my roommate Aleksandra [not her real name] we approached a police officer on our way to school and asked him for help. We showed him our scars and explained that we were constantly beaten at the Special Care Centre. But he did not believe us. He said he knew the Borromean Sisters personally and thought very highly of them. He drove us back to the centre and confronted Sister Bernadetta with our accusations. She explained that our scars and bruises resulted from fights among children. When he left, she beat us with a wooden ruler.
I felt emptiness and disappointment. I couldn’t understand why no one would believe us. Even at school we did not have friends. Nobody liked us, because we lived in the Special Care Centre. Teachers never took the initiative to challenge these stereotypes about us and to help other children break their mistrust towards us and to build a bond between us instead.
We were neglected, forced by Sisters to wear the same clothes sometimes for weeks in a row. The Sisters were ingenious in finding new ways to humiliate us. We were all terrified and looked like victims from a horror movie: mournful expressions, no smiles. No one ever hugged us. We were all lonely, felt abandoned by everyone and simply thrown into the same pot.
I had already accepted the fact that I would have to stay at the Special Care Centre in Zabrze until my eighteenth birthday when suddenly in August 2008 I was taken back from a summer camp and placed together with my brother in the Children Care Centre in my hometown of Piekary Śląskie.
I remember being overwhelmed by a mix of emotions. I was scared that I might be relocated to a worse centre, but deep down I wanted to go. On the day of my departure I saw Sister Bernadetta for the last time. She told me that leaving the Sisters spared me from even worse treatment. I will never forget that.
Marta was a resident of the Special Care Centre in Zabrze, Poland for four years. We have not disclosed her surname