Alice came to speak to the Commission not just about her own abuse but the abuse of her son, Cam, which as an adult led him to commit suicide, several years ago.
In the last four years she has lost not just her son but also her husband, to cancer. As well, she was injured by an incorrectly administered medical treatment and since then has not been able to work.
‘I really just get down that much that I think I’ve had enough’, she told the Commissioner. ‘And I just sort of get sad that my Cam left me here on my own.’
Alice’s mother died when she was young. As a four year old, in the mid-1950s, she and her two older sisters were placed by their father in a Melbourne Catholic convent. He took them there so they could be brought up together. In reality they were separated immediately and for the eight years of her stay in the convent, Alice hardly saw her elder sisters.
The girls were not wards of state – their father paid for them to be there. But that didn’t mean they were well cared for. Alice remembered being terrified of the nuns’ threats, being beaten if she wet the bed or for other infringements, and having her few special toys taken away from her.
She remembered hiding from the nuns for hours at a time and crying. She hid in the hay barn, and the electrical supply room. ‘I used to hide in the great big cupboards; they’d go up to the ceiling and I’d hide from those rotten nuns.’
One night she tried to escape – the wall was too high for her to climb over – and hid for hours in the bushes as the nuns searched for her. Eventually she was found and beaten with a clothes brush until she bled.
As well, she didn’t have enough to eat. ‘I used to get very, very hungry’, she said. Early on she found her way to the convent vegetable gardens.
‘There was a man down there. … He said you can have all the cauliflower and cabbages you like’. Alice would fill up the pockets of her pinafore, ‘so when I got into bed I’d have something more to eat’.
The man was the convent gardener, and quite soon he began molesting Alice. ‘I used to do sexual things for him. Like oral sex and that for him. I used to go down there a lot’, Alice said.
The gardener told Alice not to tell anyone, and throughout the years that he abused her she never did. She only disclosed what had happened 15-20 years ago, when she was in hospital and told a psychiatrist there.
Alice had another secret that she only shared five years ago, when she told her oldest sister. After leaving the convent she’d returned to live with her father and her sisters. One night she’d been sent out to buy fish and chips for tea. On the way home, a man in a car stopped beside her and offered her some lollies. She got into the car with him, he drove off to a nearby secluded area, stopped the car and raped her.
‘I was too scared to tell anyone’, Alice said.
These childhood traumas have caused Alice terrible suffering. ‘I’ve had depression and anxiety all my life. I’ve had eating disorders’, she said. ‘I’ve had lots of breakdowns. I’ve tried to commit suicide many a time.’
Alice lived in Queensland for many years. ‘I just had to get away from the reminders of here’, she said. She has had ongoing counselling and psychiatric support. Though she lives in regional Victoria now, she is still in touch with her doctor in Queensland. It was he who said she should honour Cam’s memory by telling her son’s story to the Commission.
As a young boy, Cam got into a lot of trouble and Alice and her husband felt that all they could do to help him was to send him away for a while. He spent 18 months in a Catholic boys’ home in Queensland. As an adult, he told Alice he had been sexually abused by one of the Brothers there.
Cam took his own life in Queensland. ‘Before he went there he said “Don’t you ever, ever blame yourself for not being a good mother. You’ve been the best. You’ve been the best you could ever, ever be. You’ve supported me in every, every way”. I said “What are you saying all this for” – he says “Mum, I’ve just had enough. I’ve just really, really had enough”.’
Alice has been through the Towards Healing process in Melbourne. She had no legal representation. She was offered compensation of $5,000, and $1,000 for Cam, which she accepted. She also received a written apology, though not a very satisfactory one.
‘It says “We’re sorry we were not able to provide you with a sense of nurturing and security” … “We’re sorry you experienced great loneliness and confusion”. But the loneliness and confusion – they were at fault for that’, Alice said. ‘I thought it was pretty poor, actually.’
Alice hoped that by accepting the $5,000 she might have been able to let go of what happened to her. But, she said, she is now in her early 60s, and still carrying it.
‘You always do carry it’, she said. ‘You might feel all right for a few weeks and then it all comes back.’