‘It was unfit guardianship as to why I was removed … Mum had deserted and Dad was an alcoholic, wasn’t coping and we were neglected severely.’
Ariana was approximately three years old when she first went into care. As the youngest of seven in the 1950s, she went in and out of different facilities and was made a ward of the state at six years old. That same year she was baptised Catholic in order to be sent to a children’s home in regional Victoria run by the Sisters of Mercy, where she would remain for the next 11 years.
Physical abuse of the children at the home was commonplace. Ariana was regularly beaten for the slightest infraction and recalled a time when the priest, Father O’Donoghue, hit her across the face with such force that it knocked her to the floor.
Ariana told the Commissioner that the nuns would sometimes appear to derive sexual pleasure from punishing the children. In a written statement she wrote ‘I recall, we did something wrong like being out of bounds, being in the wrong place. A nun called me into the shoe room, she flipped me over on to a table, pulled back my dress, then pulled and twisted my undies so tight that it wedged my vagina and buttocks, then she would start slapping me with her hand, full force till I was black and blue and sometimes bleeding. I recall experiencing severe pain in my vagina and backside. There was no medical help or pain relief offered’.
In addition to physical violence, the children were also psychologically tortured. The nuns would often tell them they were ‘the dregs of society’ who would never amount to anything. ‘They used to say “It’s not worth educating you girls ’cause you’d amount to nothing anyway”.’
When Ariana was approximately nine she noticed the nuns would ‘select the more timid girls’ and lead them from the dormitory at night. Many years later two of these girls told Ariana they were being sexually abused at the time.
‘I didn’t quite understand. I used to wonder “Why won’t they take me? Why wasn’t I chosen?” But then after a while you sort of see children coming back to their beds and they were not happy kids. They were crying and they would rock themselves to sleep and I used to think “Well maybe I don’t want to go ’cause whatever is going on they’re not going to a happy place”.
‘That has had more of an impact on me I think, even though it didn’t happen to me ... I used to cry not only for them but with them. Because I felt even at a really young age I couldn’t do anything for them.’
Ariana also recalled that ‘some of the big girls, 13 to 14 years old’ would be lining up to enter Father O’Donoghue’s presbytery ‘time after time, in and out … They were very articulate in choosing the quiet, weaker girls to perform these acts of sexual abuse’.
If Ariana tried to tell anyone about the abuse she was called a liar. ‘There was nobody to complain to. Soon as you tried to even raise an issue you’re told … “You’re nothing but a troublemaker”.’ The only comfort Ariana had was her sister Marianne, and the only means of keeping her in line was to threaten them with separation. Eventually Marianne was moved to a different home, and with nothing left to lose Ariana began to retaliate.
‘I was an angry, angry, angry kid. And so then I became so defiant that in fact I used to, and I’m sorry to say it now, but I used to hit them back in the end … They became scared of me because they didn’t know what I was capable of after that. I copped it for years, I’d had enough so I gave it back.’
When Ariana was released from care at 17, she found that she was not equipped with adequate skills and education. ‘You don’t even know how to survive because you’ve been locked up all those years. And that’s where I’ve seen people fail so dismally.’ Despite this Ariana refused ‘to be a victim of theirs’ and survived.
Ariana wanted to study at university but was constantly haunted by memories of the nuns’ emotional abuse. ‘I’ve started a degree but those words still are in my head – “You’ll amount to nothing”, “You’re never good enough”. And I never seem to be able to complete something. And I didn’t finish my degree because of those words.’
In later years Ariana reconciled her lack of education by becoming a foster parent. ‘I’ve found my niche in life. I’m a current foster carer … Now I like looking after kids and to ensure that this nonsense and crap never ever happens to another kid.’
Ariana has reported the only nun still alive to the police and is yet to hear back regarding her statement. In the 2010s she received $20,000 compensation as part of the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing program after being told she was ‘lucky’ because that was more than many other survivors received.
She is not interested in pursuing the Victorian Government for further compensation after finding the Towards Healing process very long, draining and the result disappointing. ‘I’m 61, tired. Is it worth it now? … I don’t know whether I’ve got it in me to fight it … It’s not the compensation, I would rather see something come out of this.’
Although she has considerable trust issues, Ariana is determined to make a better life for herself and her foster children, which includes advocating for better out-of-home-care policies and ensuring this type of abuse never happens again.
‘It’s an absolute tragedy because we’re talking about thousands and thousands of children. And not just where I was, we’re talking about everywhere. I’m talking about thousands of children that that happened to. And it should never have happened.’