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'I was scared' — Women say they were beaten, mistreated by nuns at Parma children's home in 1960s

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-11 18:44:37-05

PARMA, Ohio — Local women are breaking their silence about what they say really happened inside a Cleveland area home for children. They claim physical abuse by nuns at the former Parmadale home was well-beyond normal discipline handed out during the 1960s, and it’s all taken a drastic emotional toll.

Watch investigator Jonathan Walsh's report tonight on News 5 at 6 p.m.

Anyone who has any concerns about these matters is urged to contact Kathleen McComb, victim assistance coordinator, Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, at 216-334-2999 or kmccomb@dioceseofcleveland.org. We are assured that your confidentiality will be protected.

In this News 5 Investigators’ exclusive story, we want to warn you. What you’re about to read could be difficult for some.

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Historic image of the former Parmadale children's home building.

Parmadale Children’s Village of St. Vincent DePaul in Parma started accepting orphaned children in 1925. In 1964, a 4-year-old Carolyn Foland, now Carolyn Mason, started what she called a living nightmare at the village.

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Carolyn Mason

“I was scared. I was scared being in there a lot,” said Mason.

Now in her 60s, she has revisited the former grounds of Parmadale that’s in the process of being demolished, and she’s opening up for the first time publicly about her claims of serious physical abuse at the hands of the nun who was in charge of her.

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Construction work being done on the former Parmadale site

“Sister Myra was very mean, almost to the point of evil,” said Mason.

She wiped away tears as she described beatings she claims came from Sister Myra Wasikowski.

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Sister Myra Wasikowski

“If I had bruises, which one time she blacked my eye really, really good so, that Sunday I couldn’t see my grandma and grandpa because it was too bruised and black,” said Mason.

She described the physical abuse as brutal and said Sister Myra, at times, would even enlist some help.

“Sometimes she would have another kid beat you up,” Mason told us.

“She had two faces. One was the devil and one was Sister Myra,” said Debbie Demming. She, too, was at Parmadale in the 1960s. She showed us a picture that she said was her wiggling away from Sister Myra’s lap. Demming was just 10 years old.

“Sister Myra would strip you down, bare naked, have the girls hold you down on a bench that was there by the lockers and beat your butt with whatever she could find,” described Demming.

She showed us a scar that she said she got from the nun. “She cracked me in the back of the head with a hand brush, split my head open,” said Demming.

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Debbie Demming

She told us kneeling on rice and hairbrushes for extended periods of time was all too common. And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, she and Mason described even more.

“If you didn’t eat your food or you got sick at the dining table, she would make you eat your vomit,” said Demming.

“Spoon it back (to you),” said Mason.

“She would feed you your own vomit?” we asked.

“Yes,” said Mason.

“My God! How can anybody do anything like this?” questioned Sharon Ponomarenko during a recent interview with News 5 Investigators. She told us she has vivid memories of a different nun at Parmadale when she was there in the early 60s. She said she watched that nun beat her brother there.

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Sharon Ponomarenko

“She hit him so hard his knuckles were bleeding to the point where he passed out,” said Ponomarenko.

In fact, we found an online message board through a national group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. There are numerous posts claiming abuse by nuns happened frequently at Parmadale.

“I can recall some awful beatings…” wrote one person.

There are many references to Sister Myra including “I was pushed down the basement stairs got 7 stitches in my chin…”, “terribly abusive…”, and “Sr. Myra, A.K.A. the Antichrist…”

“I feel absolutely saddened for the survivors,” said Mary Dispenza. She’s SNAP’s point person for those who claim they’ve experienced nun abuse. “SNAP is so much more than just clergy,” Dispenza told us. “The truth is there are abusers everywhere. And in communities of religious women, it’s no different.”

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Mary Dispenza with SNAP

Dispenza has some insight. She was a nun for 15 years on the West Coast, and said she can understand how abuse from nuns could happen for a long time. “The sisters protected each other, loved each other and you would never tell on each other,” she told us.

Add that to what the women said Sister Myra mentioned to them.

“She always told us, ‘If you tell anybody what’s happening here, when you come back you’re going to get it three times as bad,” said Demming.

“You would get beaten?” we asked.

“Yes,” Demming replied.

“Worse?” we asked.

“Yes,” she said.

We contacted the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. It’s the organization that Sister Myra was a member of. It told us it had just learned of the nun abuse allegations and “…the alleged matter is under investigation…”

The organization’s statement goes on to say it “…recognizes there have been incidents where clergy and Catholic sisters have abused persons entrusted to their care. These actions are horrific and we join with women religious throughout our country who deeply regret the suffering…”

Read the full statement at the end of this story.

So, what can be done? Because of the statute of limitations, it’s an uphill battle. Some states have opened windows for reporting older sexual abuse cases. Ohio isn’t one of them. But there’s no window for people pursuing decades-old physical abuse cases.

“Create laws that serve us and help us arrive at the justice we deserve,” said Dispenza.

The women who went through Parmadale as kids want justice. They want healing from their memories.

“It’s there. And it’s rough,” said Demming while tearing up. “And some days it surfaces and you can’t bear it.”

And after all these years, they want accountability. “I think whoever ran it when I was there should be held responsible for what went on there,” said Ponomorenko.

“We all would like answers and we all would like to know why. Why? Where was everybody when this was happening?” asked Demming.

“And I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” said Mason. “I need to move on with my life. I want my life back.”

The Sisters of Charity said Sister Myra died in 1999. They also said they want to hear from people who feel they suffered abuse from the nuns at Parmadale.

Here’s their full statement:

“In partnership with the victim assistance coordinator of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, this week we learned that one or more individuals may have been victims of abuse while receiving care at the former Parmadale Children’s Village of St. Vincent de Paul. The alleged matter is under investigation, and we are working closely with the investigators to try to determine what happened.

"The allegations that we’re aware of date back to the 1960s and involve a sister who is now deceased. While at this time we cannot confirm any other details, we are determined to learn the facts.

"Protecting the most vulnerable is central to our healing ministry. Harming individuals, especially children, goes against every value we stand for. If the allegations regarding the former Parmadale facility are true, we will continue to take every step possible to make sure this does not happen again. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine have implemented extensive policies, training, education, compliance measures and other related matters for the protection of children.

"The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine recognizes there have been incidents where clergy and Catholic sisters have abused persons entrusted to their care. These actions are horrific and we join with women religious throughout our country who deeply regret the suffering that has resulted for survivors and their loved ones. We are grateful for the courage of survivors who have come forward. Because of them, our own understandings of the long-term effects of abuse and sexual misconduct have expanded and deepened. We agree with the survivors who are calling upon women religious to keep working for the healing of victims and the prevention of further abuse."

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Historic image of the former Parmadale building.

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