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HMA v Sarah McDermott, Margaret Hughes and Eileen Igoe


Jan 18, 2024

At Airdrie Sheriff Court today, Sheriff Scott Pattison sentenced each of the accused, Sarah McDermott, Margaret Hughes and Eileen Igoe to 3 years in prison. All three had been found guilty of historic charges of child cruelty whilst in a position of trust.

On sentencing, Sheriff Pattison told Sarah McDermott, Margaret Hughes and Eileen Igoe:

“You are here today to be sentenced for crimes you each committed in the 1960s and 70s.

You were convicted by the jury variously of serious offences of cruel and unnatural treatment of children and of assaults against children.

You were younger then of course. You were all working for the Order of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul, a catholic order and a charitable endeavour based in Smyllum house in Lanark. This was an orphanage, a children’s home, owned and operated by that charitable order. Sarah McDermott and Eileen Igoe, you were both sisters within that order and Margaret Hughes, you were a care worker, a house mother.

The jury heard evidence that most of the children were placed within the home by social work departments who funded their placements and that the vast majority were there because of problems at home or because they had no home and no one to look after them. They were children, vulnerable children in your care within St Kentigern’s house. The jury heard of a structured routine, of mealtimes and schooling and bath or shower times and of holidays to Girvan during the summer and of walks into Lanark at the weekends.

However, the overwhelming impression from the evidence was that each of you participated in a persistent course of conduct of inflicting excessive discipline and violent abuse upon young children in your care.

The prosecution was based on the brave accounts of those children, all survivors of your abuse, now in their 50s and 60s, who came to court and spoke of what they remembered happening to them – and to the impact upon them; which for some has been lifelong and traumatic. One lady spoke of having to bury it all throughout her life to cope. One spoke from prison and others spoke and were in tears at the memory of the trauma. One witness ran from the court room during her evidence when she was asked to look around the court to see if she could make an identification. I have been provided with a number of impact statements in which those affected speak of a lifelong psychological impact, of having ongoing trust issues and to having difficulty in forming relationships.

Each of you, through what you did and said, contributed to a culture in which children were demeaned and subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

Sarah McDermott, you were found guilty of 5 charges of cruel and unnatural treatment of children within your care when you were the sister in charge of St Kentigern’s house. You took up your position in 1969 when you were 25. Your community name was Sister Kieran at the time.

You were found guilty of repeatedly striking one child aged between 12 and 14 with rosary beads, striking her on the head and body when she told you that she had witnessed her brother being sexually abused by a man who was a volunteer worker at the house; when you hit her you told her not to bring her filthy home habits into a catholic place; while acting with Margaret Hughes you restrained one boy and forced soap into his mouth for “taking the lord’s name in vain”, you struck him on the back with wooden coat hangers, struck him on the head knocking him to the ground, you forced food into his mouth; you struck a girl on the head and body when she asked where her younger brother was as he had apparently been moved from Smyllum without her knowing; you shouted at her for failing to eat meals; you repeatedly struck her on the head and body, struck her with rosary beads and on a separate occasion threw a brush at her; you repeatedly struck another girl on the body with coat hangers as a punishment for taking food without permission and seized her by the ears and you repeatedly struck another boy on the head and body and repeatedly instructed him to carry his soiled bed sheets down a corridor as a punishment for wetting the bed while shouting derogatory comments at him;

Margaret Hughes, you were found guilty of charges 3, 4 and 10. You were 22 when the first of these was committed and you committed it alongside Sarah McDermott. I have already outlined the nature of those incidents.

You were also found guilty of charge 4 and of 9 separate incidents libelled within it – all in relation to one girl who was between 8 and 14 years old at the time; the jury found you guilty of:

-          striking her on the hand causing her to fall onto a bed;

-          forcing her hand toward a washing ringer while threatening to put her hand through it;

-          forcing her to eat food against her will;

-          dragging her to the kitchen for not eating the food she was given, throwing her to the floor and placing additional food before her and forcing her to eat it; and

-          serving her the same uneaten food to her at meal times for days in a row;

In the most serious incident you repeatedly kicked her on the head and body and stamped on her head; this was over a box of matches the girl had taken from your home; she said all hell broke loose when you found out; you went into her room and laid into her, you punched her on the face and in the stomach, you ripped her clothes, she ended up falling to the floor where you kicked her once on the head and stamped on her head;  you left her sobbing and told her to get into bed; she had a serious injury – a bad cut which was stitched the next day by an elderly sister who seemed to also act as a resident nurse; this girl spoke of suffering trauma throughout her life as a result of how she was treated in Smyllum;

On a different occasion you forced her into a bath of cold water and held her head under the water [when she had wet the bed] and you repeatedly said derogatory and abusive things to her and hit her on the head on a regular basis;

You were also found guilty of charge 10 – a charge of assaulting a boy by seizing him by the hair and striking him on the body with your arm;

Eileen Igoe, you were found guilty of 8 charges; 5 of these were offences of cruel and unnatural treatment of children and three were charges of assault. You were 32 when the first of these took place and when you arrived to work in Smyllum house.

The jury found you guilty of charge 12, of repeatedly force feeding a girl in the home until all the food she didn’t want was eaten; you held her head and forced food in even if she gagged on it, on one occasions she actually vomited while this was happening;

Charge 13 narrated that you did the same to another girl, it caused her to vomit and you forced her to eat the vomit; on a separate occasion you sat on top of her and restrained her, threw a brush at her and struck her on the head and body with brushes.

You were found guilty of charge 14 which stated that you assaulted a boy by seizing hold of him, striking him on the head and knocking him to the ground thereafter straddling him on the floor.

Charge 15 was a further charge of assault when you seized hold of a boy, pulled him into another room and repeatedly struck him on the head and body;

You assaulted another boy in the terms narrated by charge 16 by seizing hold of him and repeatedly striking his head against a door to his injury.

You were found guilty of charge 17 under certain deletions but including cruel and unnatural treatment against a boy in the home by repeatedly striking him on the head and body and forcing him to wear clothing to cover bruising; you also taunted him about a food controlled medical condition;

You seized a young girl by the body and pulled her from her bed as she slept. She was aged between 6 and 9 at the time. You pulled her across the room and forced her into a bath of cold water and you made abusive and derogatory comments toward her;

Lastly in charge 19 you assaulted another boy by seizing hold of him and pulling him out of his bed.

The crimes each of you have been convicted of are serious. While you were all younger at the time, you were all adults and either in your twenties or thirties when you did these things.

While there was some discussion at trial about the existence of corporal punishment at the time and the defence of reasonable chastisement it is clear that the jury rejected that defence and in any event, what was described by those who gave evidence went way beyond what could ever be described as reasonable chastisement in any generation. It would have been obvious to you all and to anyone at the time that what you were doing was abusive and criminal. Your culpability was high both because you must have known that what you were doing was wrong and because of the persistence of your conduct. The crimes are aggravated because of your duty of care to the children, their vulnerability at the time and the position of trust you were in. What should have been a home and a safe haven for these children was a place of anxiety and fear.

I will comment now on the social work reports:

Sarah McDermott, the social worker tells me that probation supervision in England would be possible but that unpaid work would not be given your age and state of health, at least south of the border. The report narrates that custody is not necessary to protect the public but suggests that you are a medium risk of reoffending. I take the view that going forward that there is a low risk of reoffending. You have lived a life without any other convictions.

Margaret Hughes, you presented to the social worker as having significant health conditions and poor mental health, and as someone who has otherwise lived a pro social life without incident. I am told you were visibly distressed when you were being interviewed and that you required the support of her daughter. The report indicates that you are suitable for a supervision requirement – I took this to mean a probation order given the age of these offences and that they predate community payback orders. You were assessed as posing a minimal risk of reoffending. Despite indicating suitability for supervision in a community based disposal the author of the report notes however that given your denial of responsibility it is difficult to identify a focus for intervention.

Eileen Igoe, like Mrs Hughes and Sarah McDermott you continue to deny responsibility for the crimes you committed. You were also assessed as posing a low risk of further offending given the context and historic nature of the offences and there was said to be no focus for meaningful intervention in a community disposal given your ongoing denial of responsibility.

I require to take account of your ages, you are all in your mid to late 70s and a prison sentence will have a greater impact on you than if you were younger. I require to sentence you in accordance with our usual sentencing practice in Scotland but to comply with the principle that you should not receive a greater sentence than you would have at the time had the cases been brought to court then.

I am however dealing with common law crimes in respect of which there was no sentencing guideline and no minimum or maximum possible sentence at the time which would have required to have been complied with now. It does seem clear to me though that if these offences had been reported and prosecuted in, for example, the 1970s, it is likely that the prosecution would have been in the high court given the sheriff court’s more limited sentencing powers on indictment at that time; and that you would have received custodial sentences due to the repeated and serious nature of your conduct, the harm it inflicted and your positions of trust with relation to the children.

I have considered all of the evidence together with the social work reports and the careful submissions made today by Mr Soutter, Mr Gebbie and Mr Nicolson.

I have taken account of the fact that you each have no record of previous convictions and that you have not offended since your time in Smyllum; and indeed have since made a positive contribution.

Having considered all relevant matters I am satisfied that the focus of my sentences should be punishment and deterrence: to punish you for the crimes committed and to deter all who have care of young children from similar conduct now and in the future. Even taking into account your ages and the health issues I have been advised of, I have discounted community based sentences as disproportionate to the seriousness of your offending and the harm you each caused.

As I said to you when you were found guilty, you failed in your duty of care to the children in Smyllum and fell far short of your moral calling and commitment.

In light of the serious nature of your offences, the lasting harm caused and your persistent breaches of your positions of trust only custodial sentences are appropriate. The sentences I am imposing take account of your ages, state of health and the submissions made on your behalf and are shorter than they would otherwise have been.

It will be a matter for the Scottish Prison Service but in my view you should be treated as vulnerable adults and I will ask my clerk to pass the reports provided to me setting out your health issues to that authority.

You will each be sentenced on an in cumulo basis.

Sarah McDermott – on charges 1, 3, 5, 9 and 11, you will be sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment.

Margaret Hughes – on charges 3, 4 and 10 you will be sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment.

Eileen Igoe – on charges 12 to 19 you will be sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment.”

18 January 2024