‘I always knew there was something weird but I hadn’t known what I had actually experienced.’
Bethany had had a difficult life. She’d battled depression and was ‘well and truly on the way to wiping myself out’ with alcohol in her 20s before she fell ill and lost the taste for it.
She struggled with relationships, too. ‘I’ve never had a sexual relationship with any degree of pleasure attached.’
Early in the 1990s, when Bethany was in middle age, she came down with a series of migraines. She took to her bed and began battling another serious bout of depression. ‘And then I started getting what I know now were flashbacks and recovering memories. But I simply couldn’t accept it. I just thought, “This is it, I’m crazy, I have lost it, I’m crazy”.’
Memories of severe and repeated sexual abuse she suffered as a little girl came flooding back. As a five year old in the 1950s Bethany had been sent to live in a Melbourne orphanage run by an order of Catholic nuns.
‘I had never seen a nun … I had no idea what a nun was. And I had never been in a building like it. Huge and dark, populated by these creatures … there was nothing about it that was nice.’
‘I experienced constant physical abuse disguised as “discipline” which nuns meted out daily.’ Bethany was punched and beaten with rulers and copper pipes. She was made to stand with books or a bowl of boiling water balanced on her head. She recalls being locked in a bathroom for a week and fed with just a few slices of bread a day.
Bethany was also sexually abused, often in what she describes as a ‘ritualistic’ manner. She recalls both priests and nuns being present during these rapes, chanting, with candles lit all around. She recalls being abused opportunistically by individuals in the dormitory and bathrooms, too.
An aunt and uncle took Bethany from the orphanage after she had suffered there for two years. Bethany recalls trying to tell her aunt a little about the abuse ‘in a childish way’. Her aunt told her she must have had a bad dream ‘because that couldn’t happen’. Bethany believes she buried the memories after that.
Bethany faced the truth of her past when the flashbacks laid her low in the 90s. She began visiting a psychiatrist and contacted a women’s health centre. The counselling has helped her through the last few decades.
Determined to deal with her past, Bethany contacted the order who ran the orphanage and asked for a meeting. She met with the head of the order twice and disclosed the physical and sexual abuse. Bethany reports being received politely and listened to by the order, who put her in touch with a support person to ‘formalise her claim’ against the nuns as part of the Towards Healing process.
Bethany hasn’t been happy with the results. She eventually received a letter from the Catholic Church saying her claims of abuse had been investigated and there was no evidence that any of them were true. Bethany inquired about the investigation – what records had been checked and which former staff had been interviewed? The order replied that the matter had been settled and they couldn’t help her further. Bethany considers the final letter ‘a literary version of a raised finger’.
She was filled with rage after being brushed off by the order, as she saw it, and reports ‘trashing’ a cathedral as an act of revenge.
Bethany did not report the abuse to police at the time her memory returned, as existing statute of limitation laws blocked an investigation.
Bethany also wished to speak for her grandmother, now long gone. ‘My maternal grandmother spent her life in psychiatric care, because she had dared to say what a priest had done to her when she was little. I used to visit her and take her out, and I always had to take her to confession, because she was wicked. And then she’d tell me why she was wicked – because of what she had festered with. They told her she was insane, that she had “religious mania”. And then she was drugged to the gills for the rest of her life.’
‘That’s what I thought was happening to me, that I was going crazy like my grandmother. And I was just like my grandma. But I wasn’t crazy, and nor was she.’