After becoming wards of the state in the early 1950s, Anne-Marie and her sister Meg spent most of their early childhood in a Catholic orphanage in New South Wales. It was a strict and frightening place where both girls were sexually abused several times before they reached their mid-teens. At that point their paths diverged. They were separated and sent to different homes and the beginnings of very different lives.
The first incidents of abuse happened at the orphanage when the girls were between 10 and 12 years old. In the mornings Anne-Marie would run across to the bishop’s house to cook breakfast for him. After a few visits he began to slip his hand down her shirt and grope her chest. She told the Commissioner, ‘It only happened to me a couple of times and after that I’d make sure I didn’t go alone. But he’d do it to other girls’. One of those other girls was Meg, who suffered more extreme and prolonged abuse from the bishop. Eventually Meg reported the abuse to the nuns. They beat her and locked her in a broom closet every day after school for months.
The bishop continued to abuse Meg for a year or so. Meanwhile, at age 14, Anne-Marie was attacked by a visiting priest. He threw her on the bed and started to pull her underwear down. ‘He was really aggressive. I think if I hadn’t started crying he would have went the whole way.’ As it turned out, the priest let her go, saying, ‘Please don’t tell anyone. We’ve got feelings just like everyone else’.
Anne-Marie said she tried to keep quiet about the abuse but over the next two weeks her nightmares got so bad that she had to tell someone. She spoke to one of the nuns and then to the priest in charge. As far as Anne-Marie knows, no action was taken against the priest who had attacked her. Instead, she and Meg were shipped off to separate foster homes.
Anne-Marie stayed at the home for a month or so before she took another placement on a farm with ‘nice people’. She worked there until her wardship ended at age 18.
Meg had a different experience. Shortly after she arrived at her foster home, her foster father started to sneak into her bedroom at night and lie on top of her. After a few instances, Meg spoke up. ‘I said, “You do it again and I’m telling your wife”. And they sent me straight back [to the orphanage].’
Meg was then bounced to a different girls’ home in Sydney. She said, ‘I couldn’t cope with it. I had this statue and it was my friend. It was a dog, it was just a plaster dog. So I used to talk to it. And they took it off me and they sent me to a psychiatric hospital’.
After she was released from the hospital, Meg ended up in a state-run girls’ home where she was again sexually abused. ‘I can’t put a face to him. There was a man and there was a woman that used to laugh and watch at the door.’
Next, Meg was sent to a maximum security institution for girls. ‘It was the worst. You talked five minutes a day, you didn’t look up, you marched everywhere you went.’ She said there was no sexual contact from the staff but, ‘They’d throw you in the cells with no clothes on and then it’d be singing out through the door, “We’re going to come and get you tonight”. And that terrified you’.
Meg stayed at the institution until she was 18, at which time the staff loaded her onto a train in handcuffs and delivered her to the father she barely knew. Now a free woman, one of the first things she did was re-educate herself. Anne-Marie was the same. Both sisters felt they’d been deprived of a decent education, and both were determined to seize one for themselves.
Anne-Marie said, ‘I laugh to meself because when I left school I couldn’t read or write at all. And I got married, had my children, I taught myself to read and write. Now I’ve got a Bachelor’s Degree’. Meg said, ‘We only went to school to sixth class. When I come home I went to uni and got my HSC, and I’ve had my uni degree. I’ve had all those trying to prove something to meself that I’ve got a better IQ than what they say I’ve got’.
Both women described experiencing nightmares and trouble with sexual intimacy. Both worked hard for much of their lives and were fiercely protective of their children and grandchildren.
But there were many differences between them, too. Meg said, ‘Me and sister, we’re like cheese and chalk’. Anne-Marie said, ‘I’m the strong one. I was the one who wouldn’t say anything. I’d take it. Sit back and just take it. Whereas she couldn’t; she’d act out’. Over the years, Meg’s ‘acting out’ has included attempts to end her own life and several stints in jail.
The sisters also differed in their willingness to talk about the abuse. Meg said she mostly kept it to herself, whereas Anne-Marie said, ‘I’ve been pretty vocal in the last few years about it; that was my way of coping’.
At the end of their sessions with the Commissioner, each woman had her own message to pass on. Anne-Marie directed hers towards her fellow survivors, saying, ‘Don’t be ashamed, it’s not something to be ashamed of. If they want to cope they need to talk about it, whether it be with family or with a psych. Until they do they’re not going to get better’.
Meg saved her last word for the institutions. ‘These homes are no good for anybody’, she said. ‘Leave the children where they are.’