Unresolved mystery

22 September 2017


Detective work: in Punt PI (Radio 4, Saturday), Steve Punt investigated the disappearance in July 1953 of the Polish priest Fr Henryk Borynski

Detective work: in Punt PI (Radio 4, Saturday), Steve Punt investigated the disappearance in July 1953 of the Polish priest Fr Henryk Borynski

IN A James Bond film, it would be cyanide tablets; in the basement of a Bradford semi, you have to settle for caustic soda. The class system operates in matters of murder as it does everywhere else; and, as Punt PI (Radio 4, Saturday) investigated the disappearance in July 1953 of Fr Henryk Borynski, we moved through the echelons of criminality from the sophisticated to the down­right sordid.

The spirit of Steve Punt’s pro­gramme, which investigates mys­­teries of yesteryear, is whimsical and self-parodying. It matters little that the so-called mysteries are rarely mysteries at all. In the case of Fr Borynski, a Polish priest living in Bradford who may or may not have played a part in anti-Communist agitation, the likely story was con­tained within intelligence files made public in 2012. The skill of Punt and his producer is to spin a good yarn on the journey.

And this is a ripping yarn. Fr Borynski receives a phone call and hurries out of the house. An inter­national assassin is spotted at a bus stop. A fellow priest is attacked, and the words “Keep silent” are spelled out in matchsticks beside the body. For some years, the story goes that Fr Borynksi was poisoned with cyanide capsules by a Soviet agent.

While the press enjoyed this speculation, behind the scenes offi­cials were satisfied that Fr Boryn­ski’s fate could be explained in a more banal, but also more grue­some, fashion, as a case of clerical jealousy. Without spoiling it for the Listen Again audience, suffice to say the denouement involves 60 lbs of caustic soda.

The passing of time has undoubt­edly deadened the horror of the Borynski case. It is unlikely that the same will ever be felt about The Secrets of Smyllum Park (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the subject of Michael Buchanan’s File on 4 inves­tiga­tion. Run by the Daughters of Charity, Smyllum Park, in Lanark­shire, notionally cared for vulner­able children and orphans until its closure in 1981. There are many still alive who witness to the cruelty of particular nuns, and a sadistic care­taker whose bouts of violence, it has been suggested, led to the hospital­isation and possibly even death of children in the institution.


At the heart of Buchanan’s pro­gramme, however, was the question where those who had died while resident at Smyllum Park had been buried. The discovery of a mass grave at an RC orphanage in County Galway recently has led some to suspect something similar at Smyl­lum Park. Research at the National Records in Edinburgh shows little evidence of the burial of Smyllum Park children in other sites; and the strong suggestion is that, in an un­­kempt corner of the graveyard, lie the bodies of 400 or more children.

The Daughters of Charity said nothing to the programme except that they were working with the offi­cial Scottish Child Abuse In­­quiry. And, indeed, there was little in this programme that sug­gested that the official inquiry was defi­­cient. Whether it digs deep enough, literally and metaphor­ic­ally, time will tell.

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