Ex-carer, James McCann, of Swaffham, involved in regime of cruelty and abuse at Catholic boys' school
PUBLISHED: 16:50 10 October 2016 | UPDATED: 16:50 10 October 2016
A former carer at a Catholic children's home has been found to have been part of a sadistic and vindictive regime of abuse involving nuns, priests and a paedophile Scout master.
Despite three previous police investigations, details of what went on at the St Francis boys’ home in Shefford, Bedfordshire, were aired publicly for the first time in the case of 80-year-old James McCann, of Swaffham, at the Old Bailey.
McCann was accused of 50 charges of violent and sexual assault on 25 boys aged between eight and 12 in the 1960s and 1970s.
As he suffered from dementia and had a number of strokes, McCann was deemed unfit to stand trial and jurors were told only to decide on the facts of the case rather than his guilt.
Jurors decided that he was responsible for 30 physical attacks and 12 indecent acts on the boys, who are now in their 50s and 60s.
Judge Rebecca Poulet told jurors the only course of action in the circumstances was an absolute discharge.
Around 40 former Shefford boys, who are now in their 50s and 60s, are now suing St Francis Children’s Society, which ran the home until its closure in 1974.
It can now be reported that St Francis’s Scout master, Christopher Cahill, 74, from Bedford, was jailed for three-and-a-half years earlier this year after pleading guilty to a string of sex assaults.
Three out of four of Cahill’s victims also complained about abuse at the hands of McCann.
Other members of staff were involved in abuse, including nuns and a priest named Father John Ryan who was in charge at the time, the court heard. They died before the latest police investigation was launched.
Father Ryan was described by one witness in the McCann trial as “the most evil man I have ever met in my life”.
The man also told jurors how “sadistic” Sister Xavier was in charge of the kitchen and would force boys to put their hands in boiling water and rap them with a steel ruler if they dared take them out.
He told said another nun, Sister Realino, had sexually molested him on more than one occasion and told him “I know you like it”.
The trial had heard that McCann was responsible for the “cruel and sadistic” practice of hitting boys around the ears from behind, known to residents as The Clappers.
Prosecutor John Price QC said McCann’s activities were carried out amid a “deeply ingrained” ethos of violence and corruption.
On the former residents’ evidence, Mr Price said: “On their accounts this is not a case of a rogue violent and abusive carer operating secretly in an otherwise benign and caring environment. Quite the reverse.
“Theirs is a truly shocking story of a cruel and vindictive regime, the tone it seems being set by Father Ryan, who himself often behaved towards them in much the same way as is alleged by them against Mr McCann.
“There were nuns who worked at the home who do not escape blame. Members of staff appear routinely to have brutalised many of the children in a gratuitous fashion.”
The court heard that McCann would also beat boys with a belt or stick and had punched one of them with full force in the face.
He also forced youngsters to engage in indecent acts for his own sexual gratification in a wash room, bath and in bed, jurors were told.
During the 1960s, the home was regularly visited by Home Office officials who noted beatings and children running away, but still described it as a “cheerful” place.
McCann was described as being a “great asset” and “the best assistant we have ever had”, according to one report.
The nuns were recorded as dealing with the children in a “kindly and realistic manner” and were “warm-hearted and conscientious in their care”, although “out of touch with modern ideas”.
After St Francis was shut down, police launched three investigations into complaints, in 1996, 1998 and 2003 but no-one was charged.
When he was interviewed by police about the allegations in 2013 and 2015, McCann denied they took place.