A 53-year-old woman has told the Northern Ireland Historical Abuse Inquiry that, as a four or five-year-old, she had been sexually abused by a nun when she was in Derry's Nazareth Home. 

The woman, called Valerie, spent an hour this morning giving evidence to a sitting of the inquiry at Banbridge.

She told the inquiry that her parents were unmarried and she was in the care of the nuns at the Nazareth Home until her early teens.

She said her mother, who is now deceased, came there to see her three times, but she never met her father who is now dead.

Valerie claimed the sexual assault took place during a hygiene inspection when nails, hair and ears were being checked.

She told of regular beatings by nuns and senior girls in the home.

The seniors would wash the younger girls hair once a week.  There were two tubs, one to wash the hair and one to rinse it. 

"Afterwards the senior girls would dig the comb into our heads and mine would bleed - to this day I use my fingers to comb my hair".

She claimed that she developed a condition of sores on her body through washing in dirty bath water. 

She also made allegations about a nun who would regularly use a bunch of keys to beat her on the head describing it as a routine punishment.

Valerie spoke of going to the chapel in the home, looking at statues of baby Jesus and thinking how could this happen,

She told the inquiry that she has never married because she promised God she would never have children because she did not want them to go through what she has gone through.

She said she is being treated for depression and has self-harmed. 

Valerie said: "There is a very big apology due. I don't know if it will put things right. They have already made an apology...the cruelty was unbelievable for people who sat and prayed...I found it hard to forgive."

Another woman, Jo, has also been giving evidence.

The 60-year-old said she and some of her siblings were brought the Nazareth Home because her family were living in poor circumstances

She described the Derry home, where she spent two years, as a terrifying, old, impersonal place.

"It was what I imagined hell would be like. I was hungry and cold and lived in fear all the time."

She described how the girls would try to pick the nits out of one another's hair. "I remember my sister collapsing once when I trying to do it for her."

"I remember being put in a huge dormitory, crying for my mother, looking out a window, hoping I could jump out of it and die." 

She told of an occasion when she thought the older girls who regularly beat her had probably been brutalised all their lives and said: "I think it gave me some compassion for them."

She described how the girl next to her in the dormitory used to make an awful animal-like sound at night and an older girl used to come and beat her, sometimes watched by a nun.

She claimed that once she had tried to push the older girl and the nun away.

After two years in Derry she was moved to another home. 

It was better - it had swings, there was grass and a natural environment.  But she felt terrible stress because she knew some of her siblings were still in the Derry home.

As a 12-year-old she and a sister were allowed home to help look after their mother who had ongoing mental health problems.  Her father was working in England at the time.

Jo has been living with her husband in England for over 30 years.  They have three children and one grandchild.

Over the years her jobs have included working for three priests - she said she has always been trying to fix the religious conflict. 

She said: "This is the most open I have been. It was something I have always wanted to bury. It is even hard to deal with it now.

"Some of my siblings have been able to be more open than others.

"My older sister had been sent to another place. She must have been badly abused. I feel I lost a bit of her there.....this is quite hard. I tried to hide this for a long time. I thought I could go to England and start afresh because nobody knows me there. It is something that is always there and can be quite easily triggered."

Before concluding her evidence, she was asked about the role of the inquiry.

"None of us will ever get our childhood back but I think it would be nice to live with a sense of being safe and secure....particularly as we get older. I know many others have not had a voice and have suffered and died with the pain of never being able to express it. 

"Thank you. I thought I would die carrying the pain to the grave."