‘I was placed in an institution because my mum was broke and had no money to look after us. It was their job to look after us like we were their own kids, instead of them … treating us like a number.’
Bettina was placed in care at the age of four, and spent five years in a Catholic orphanage in regional Victoria in the early 1970s.
In a written statement provided to the Royal Commission, Bettina wrote, ‘I was abused at the [orphanage]. I was touched up in the shower behind locked doors. It happened more than once, but I can’t remember how many times because it was too traumatising … I was sexually assaulted digitally … Until this day I struggle having showers and I can’t breathe in the shower. I open windows and doors in the bathroom’.
Bettina told the Commissioner that there was a festival at Christmas time and she remembers, ‘Santa … I remember being touched inappropriately under my dress … Christmas time is not a time of enjoyment. It’s a time of depression and it’s overwhelming for me’. She was also assaulted at the orphanage by the man who came to repair the children’s shoes. ‘He touched me in my private parts … I remember … going into myself and blocking it out.’
While on a holiday farm stay, Bettina was assaulted by the teenage daughter of her foster parents. When Bettina tried to report what had happened, she was accused of lying and told that no one would take her on holiday if she kept making up stories. ‘None of them bothered to look into my story. They appeared not to care.’
As well as the sexual abuse she experienced, Bettina recalls harsh punishment from the nuns. ‘When I wet the bed or did something they thought was cheeky, or cry all the time … the nuns would hit me with an open hand slap over the ear, which would hurt.’ These slaps have led to significant problems with ringing in the ears as an adult.
Bettina loved having visits from her mother while she was at the orphanage, so when visits were cancelled as a punishment, it was very distressing for her. ‘When you have mental abuse, it’s just devastating … like a hole in your soul or in the heart … Who’s got the answers for that now?’
Bettina told the Commissioner that she doesn’t understand the treatment she received at the orphanage. ‘Why would someone treat someone like that? Why would they? Where do they get off putting someone down constantly?’
The abuse Bettina experienced has led to her suffering significant mental health issues including major depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory loss and panic attacks. She has been unable to hold down a full-time job, and this has caused hardship for her and her family. ‘My money goes to the chemist and medication.’ Bettina is currently seeking legal advice about compensation, which would provide some relief for her financial situation.
Bettina has been receiving ongoing treatment for her mental health issues since the age of 20. ‘I think if you’ve been abused or physically abused … the challenge is … not to turn to heavy drugs and let them … These people up there … have power over you … but to do the right thing and give yourself a better quality of life, if you can. And seek help out there to get the better quality of life.’
Bettina told the Commissioner, ‘What would help in the future is to keep well and getting believed that the sexual abuse happened. Hierarchies never believed me and I want this Commission as a hierarchy to believe me … I’m just glad youse believed me … Thank you so much … that just helps so much.
‘If the Royal Commission can get something out of this account, even one thing that is beneficial to help children or even just one child to prevent sexual or physical or mental abuse, that would be awesome. I am doing this as I really want to raise awareness of what it’s like, the hardship, the problems, and its causes, for the Commissioners to be aware, to tell the politicians where the money needs to go to help survivors of institutional abuse.’