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Caldey Island: 6-year-old who drowned in 1977 was victim of abuse, says sister

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EXCLUSIVE by Amanda Gearing

 

A WOMAN whose sister drowned off Caldey Island in 1977 as a 6-year-old child says they were both sexually abused by a monk there.

Father Thaddeus Kotik, who lived at Caldey Abbey for 45 years before his death in 1992, is accused of abusing several girls in the 1970s and 1980s.

Joanna Biggs, 48,  is the first of Kotik’s alleged victims to waive anonymity to speak out about her ordeal. She has revealed that is well as being victim to sexual abuse – her sister was blamed for her own death.

Reading the shocking revelations that a monk had abused several children on Caldey Island in the 1970s and 1980s broke open a kaleidoscope of traumatic memories for Joanna Biggs.

Memories of abuse by Father Thaddeus Kotik of herself and her younger sister, Theresa; memories of the last day she spent with Theresa playing on Sandtop Bay on Caldey Island; memories of a grey nun’s veil blowing in the wind and the panicked look on the nun’s face when Theresa was swept out to sea and drowned on 18 July 1977.

Joanna Biggs told her siblings about the abuse in recent years but she has now also told her grieving parents of her abuse by Fr Thaddeus and that their daughter who died was also a victim of abuse.

Joanna Biggs has been affected by the abuse herself – not being able to drink milk for decades because of the smell that reminds her of the dairy where the abuse happened.

But it is the drowning of her younger sibling Theresa that has compelled Joanna Biggs to research the facts surrounding her sister’s death and to publicly defend Theresa’s honour against what she believes to be false evidence given to the inquest.

A nun, Sister Sheila Singleton, who was caring for a group of children at the beach on Caldey Island, claimed in evidence that she had forbidden Theresa to swim and that Theresa had disobeyed her by going in the water.

“This is not true,” Joanna Biggs said. “The nun asked me to help her blow up Theresa’s armbands so I showed her how to do that.”

“[The nun] helped put Theresa’s armbands on. And then she said ‘off you go’.”

“My sister was not naughty. I was told she was found with one of her armbands on.”

Theresa’s father John Biggs strongly supports Joanna’s desire now to have the truth revealed in the hope of bringing a proper closure for the family over his daughter’s death.

John Biggs said he and his wife “never believed that Theresa wilfully disobeyed but were not there to prove it”.

Joanna Biggs said her parents had lived with the nun’s lie for more than 40 years. “It is time for my sister to be released from false blame,” she said.

“My sister was more adventurous and more assertive than me,” she said.

Even at six years old it was Theresa who made sure that they escaped further abuse by Fr Thaddeus, she said.

“My sister made a pact with me that we would never be alone with Fr Thaddeus even if he offered us sweets.”

After speaking with her elderly parents, Joanna Biggs searched the Pembrokeshire Archives to unearth the inquest file that her parents had always been too traumatised to read.

Theresa’s father attended the inquest but her mother, who had a very young baby at the time, was not able to attend.

The inquest documents show the drowning was investigated in one day and the inquest was held the following day, just two days after the drowning.

At last answers are being found. Joanna Biggs is now determined to correct the record so that her little sister can be remembered as the obedient child she was raised to be by her devout Catholic parents.

Sister Singleton did not give evidence in person but she made a statement to the court claiming that she “told Theresa she was not to go into the water as it was too cold” and that Theresa had disobeyed her direction and went swimming without permission.

Sister Singleton said she saw Theresa “going towards the water” and asked one of the boys to look after her.

“It seemed only minutes had passed when some of the boys shouted [to] me. I understood something had happened to Theresa,” Sister Singleton wrote.

But teenagers at the beach gave evidence that the nun had allowed a large group of children to swim in a force 5 to 6 gale at a beach with dangerous ocean currents, put floaties on Theresa, 6, led her to the water’s edge and asked a boy of 14 to look after her in the water.

A boy of 14, James Donnelly, gave evidence that Sister Singleton had made her way towards him with Theresa – who was wearing inflated armbands – and asked him to take the girl down to the water.

James Donnelly told the inquest that he went in the water with Theresa, leaving her playing in shallow water while he went out to deeper water.

James lost sight of Theresa, saw that she had been swept into deeper water and tried to reach her with help from another boy, John Lewis, 12, who had come to help.

John reached her and Theresa held onto him and told him “Don’t let go of me”, but he said she was pulling him under the surface and they were both swallowing water.

John said he pushed the girl’s arms away so he could get out of the water and get help.

Theresa was swept further out and was waving her arms and screaming. Another boy, Anthony Bonar, 15, swam towards her but could not reach her because the current was too strong.

By then Anthony said he could only see two orange armbands floating on the water and the girl’s arms waving in the air.

“Her head was under the water,” he said.

The coastguard was called and retrieved the girl’s body. A doctor who met the rescue boat at the slipway pronounced her dead.

The coroner accepted the nun’s evidence over that of the three boys.

Theresa’s family would like to see the inquest re-opened so that the evidence of the boys can now be accepted and so the brave efforts of the boys to save Theresa can be recognised.

Joanna Biggs has also confirmed that a group of monks was standing on the rocks praying.

“None of them gave evidence to the inquest,” she said.

In addition, the abbot of Caldey Abbey and a parish priest Father David Bottrill were on the island at the time.

“I know that the abbot rang our home and told my father that Theresa was dead,” Ms Biggs said. “My family has only just become aware that there were monks present on the beach.”

What still weighs on Joanna Biggs’ mind after 40 years is that three boys battled dangerous swell and undercurrents to try to rescue a child while adults on the beach and on the rocks did not give practical help.

“This was a heavy enough burden for these children to carry for the rest of their lives. But on top of this, there was no mention in the inquest about the actions of the adults who were present that day –  except for the false statement of Sister Sheila,” she said.

“Questions need to be asked – Why were any children at all allowed to swim on such a dangerous beach that day? Why did no adult enter the water to try to assist the boys?” she said.

Joanna Biggs also questions why no adequate warning signs about dangerous tides were erected before or after her sister drowned.

“Whenever my family visits my sister’s grave on Caldey Island it distresses us to see there are still no adequate warning signs of the dangerous underwater currents at Sandtop Bay,” she said.

The Herald sought comment from Sister Singleton but the Irish religious order to which she belonged, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Sisters of the Assumption, has confirmed that Sister Singleton died in 2004.

  • Do you have any further information? Please email the journalist: Amanda Gearing.

Health

NHS performance: Ambulances tied up as hospitals burst at the seams

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  • A NEW set of Welsh NHS performance data was released today (Thursday, June 20), and it contains more bad news.

The Welsh Government described the data as “disappointing”.

WG “LACKS GRIP” ON FUNDAMENTALS

Sam Rowlands MS, the Conservatives’ Shadow Health Minister, said: “These atrocious statistics show that the NHS is going backwards under Labour.

“Two-year waiting lists have increased for the first time in two years.

“Keir Starmer has called Labour-run Wales his blueprint for what a UK Labour Government would look like: these figures are a stark warning for the whole UK.”

Mabon ap Gwynfor MS, Plaid Cymru’s health spokesperson, said: “Labour’s complete mismanagement of the NHS in Wales has left us with waiting lists at the highest on record, targets for diagnosis and treatment are being consistently missed, and people are getting stranded in A&E departments for hours on end.

“It’s no wonder that we have such astronomical waiting times when the government has failed to deal with problems in primary care and social care.

“Until the government gets to grip with these fundamental problems, then waiting lists will continue to climb.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We have made it a priority to reduce long waiting times, and today, the Cabinet Secretary for Health met with health board chairs to instruct them to redouble their efforts to tackle these.

“These figures show the NHS is continuing to manage incredible demand for urgent and emergency care – the number of immediately life-threatening 999 calls in May was 25% higher than the previous year, and demand is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than pre-pandemic levels.”

THE LOCAL PICTURE: HOSPITALS

Over 30% of patients waiting to start treatment in the Hywel Dda UHB area have been waiting for over 36 weeks.

The Health Board has the second-highest proportion of the population waiting to start therapy. In practical terms, that means that around 4,000 people are yet to get the therapy they need.

The number of patients told they did not have it fell. However, the number of patients starting treatment has remained stable for years.

With rising demand for cancer diagnosis and treatment and no improvement in the numbers starting treatment, performance against the target for treating cancer dropped.

At least 75% of patients should start treatment within 62 days of first being suspected of cancer.

Only 42% of cancer patients in the Hywel Dda UHB area started treatment within the target time. To meet a revised target of 80% by 2026, Hywel Dda UHB will have to increase its performance by almost 100%.

The Welsh Government’s performance target for patients waiting to start treatment for less than 26 weeks is 95%.

No Health Board is close to meeting that target, although Hywel Dda UHB is the second-best performer—just over 50% of patients start treatment within six months.

Despite a dramatic fall in the number of inpatient beds in Hywel Dda UHB’s hospitals over the last six years, the number of inpatient admissions rose sharply in April, placing even greater pressure on chronically overstretched staff and resources.

THE LOCAL PICTURE: AMBULANCES

The percentage of red emergency calls being met within eight minutes fell across Wales.

The ambulance performance target is for 65% of all red calls to be attended to within eight minutes.

Across Wales in May, there were 5,110 red (life-threatening) calls to the ambulance service, 13.9% of all calls.

45.8% of red calls received an emergency response within eight minutes, 2.2 percentage points lower than in April.

In the Hywel Dda UHB area, 47.6% of red calls received an emergency response within 8 minutes, compared to a sharply reduced number of calls in the red category.

Examining more detailed data for the Hywel Dda UHB area demonstrates the pressure on emergency hospital admissions and the knock-on effect on the ambulance service.

When an ambulance takes a patient to hospital, admission is supposed to take place within 15 minutes of arrival, with the ambulance returning to service 15 minutes after that.

In the Hywel Dda UHB area, ambulances were tied up beyond those markers for almost 4,000 hours beyond expected admission and return to on-call.

Fewer than 18% of patients conveyed to a Major Injury Department were admitted within 15 minutes. For Major Acute Units, that turnaround was even worse, at barely 15.5%.

Once cleared, however, well over 80% of ambulances were back out on call.

Diving deeper into the data, we see that just over 1,700 patients travelled by ambulance to major emergency, major acute, and maternity and mental health units.

By a very crude piece of arithmetic, we can calculate that if those 1700 patients accounted for the 4000 hours of “lost time”, the handover stats would be even more shocking, with an average turnover of over two hours.

Moreover, localised data shows that 35.6% of all people who are attended by an ambulance go to a hospital using other means of transport.

A CRISIS ACROSS THE BOARD

The issue could not be clearer: delays at hospitals are keeping ambulances off the road.

The upward pressure on A&E services caused by the collapse of out-of-hours primary care (GPs, etc) is driving up attendance at all hospital A&Es.

The lack of beds is driving up a backlog of treatment. The lack of clinical staff means more junior staff fulfil tasks -including initial diagnoses- formerly taken by clinicians and registered nurses. Consolidating rural services on an urban model is making things worse.

Whatever the cure for the disastrous condition of the Welsh NHS, money will not be enough to turn around decades of decline.

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Community

New health concerns over Withyhedge Landfill site emissions

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LEVELS of a potentially harmful gas emitted by the Withyhedge Landfill Site have been recorded above World Health Organization (WHO) guideline levels, according to a recent report. Public Health Wales (PHW) conducted a health risk assessment on air quality data collected between 1 March and 3 April 2024 in the surrounding area.

The data indicates that during March and April, hydrogen sulphide, a colourless gas with a distinctive “eggy” smell, exceeded the WHO’s odour annoyance guideline. PHW warns that exposure to such odours can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, sleep disturbances, and stress.

PHW stresses the importance of addressing the source of these offsite odours to mitigate potential health impacts on the local community. Despite an enforcement deadline passing last month, residents continue to report gas and odour issues in their homes daily.

“These are common reactions to unpleasant smells, and these effects should usually pass once the odour has dissipated,” PHW stated. “The long-term health risk is low.”

In response to the health risk assessment, PHW advises residents to keep doors and windows closed when the odours are present and seek medical advice if they feel unwell. However, they caution against blocking windows or vents completely, as these are crucial for ventilation and controlling dampness. Once the outdoor smell subsides, opening windows and doors can help eliminate any remaining odours inside.

Work to cap the landfill site has been completed, and PHW has welcomed plans to install static air monitoring equipment around the site to capture more detailed data. Dr. Sarah Jones, a consultant in environmental public health for PHW, acknowledged the stress and anxiety local residents are experiencing due to the odours. She emphasised the importance of resolving the issue swiftly and assured that the health risk assessment would be updated as new data becomes available.

Gaynor Toft, Chair of the Air Quality Group for the Multi-Agency Incident Management team, noted that the risk assessment from PHW is being used to refine and develop the air quality monitoring programme. Suitable locations for static monitoring equipment are being identified to ensure robust data collection for future assessments.

Huwel Manley of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) confirmed that NRW would continue to use its regulatory powers to drive improvements at the site and address the causes of the odour affecting the community. NRW had given RML, the company operating the landfill, until mid-May to undertake several remedial actions to control gas emissions.

The Pembrokeshire Herald has reached out to NRW for a detailed update on the current situation at the site. The community remains hopeful for a swift resolution to these ongoing health and environmental concerns.

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Community

Local projects benefit from Sustainable Development Fund grants

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SEVEN local projects have benefited from over £70,000 of funding through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund (SDF).

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund supports community-led projects in and around the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park that contribute towards a reduction in carbon and help respond to the climate emergency.

In the latest round of funding, grants were awarded to Southern Roots Organics, Narberth Museum, and the Crymych Arms Community Pub to install Solar PV systems. Additionally, the Narberth and District Community and Sports Association received funding to upgrade their existing Solar PV system and improve the energy efficiency of their squash court lighting. As well as generating new low-carbon electricity and offsetting higher carbon grid electricity consumption, these projects will reduce ongoing electricity costs for these organisations.

Cosheston Community Hall was another beneficiary, receiving support from the Fund to construct a bike shed. This project aims to encourage more people to cycle to the Hall, promoting sustainable travel within the community.

In Marloes, SDF funding has paved the way for the village clock to be retrofitted with low-energy and Dark-Skies-friendly illumination, which will reduce both energy consumption and light pollution in the area.

The VC Gallery also received funding to upgrade to more energy-efficient windows and doors, which will create a warmer community space and contribute to lower carbon emissions.

Jamie Leatham from Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority said: “These grants represent our continued commitment to addressing the Climate Emergency, supporting community-led projects that improve sustainability and reduce carbon emissions.”

“By funding initiatives like Solar PV installations, energy-efficiency upgrades, and sustainable transportation solutions, we are helping our communities to reduce emissions, generate their own low-carbon energy, and raise awareness to promote a greener, more resilient future for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.”

The Sustainable Development Fund consists of money allocated from the Welsh Government Sustainable Landscapes Sustainable Places Fund.

Further information can be found at www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/sustainable-development-fund.

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