‘I’ve just got to find a beginning. As a child being brought up in a very rough home. My mum and dad, they had their arguments and things, and we had to put up with it practically every night while we were home but … we weren’t all actually brought up together; we were separated as children.
‘I didn’t grow up with none of my siblings, just like at Christmas time we’d go home for holidays. At this time I feel there’s gaps between the siblings as well, because I can’t connect with them. We’ve been away for too long.’
In 1955, Carmel was taken with her sister to a Catholic mission in Western Australia that was a long way from the family home. She was six when she arrived and ‘hated it’ from the outset.
‘They just took us and put us there, and we didn’t know what was happening because we were only young. It took weeks for me to settle because being taken away from Mum and Dad, we didn’t know where and why. We thought that they were coming to pick us up but they didn’t.
'We ended up staying there. I got used to it after a while. The way that we didn’t have nothing. We had no shoes, the food stuff was just like soup – we called it slops. It was one bowl of semolina for breakfast and a bowl of soup for dinner and tea. That was it. You don’t get bread and butter, or salt and pepper on your table.’
Carmel stayed there until she was 14, returning home briefly in some holiday periods while her mother and father remained living on the ‘reserve’ with three or four hundred other people.
‘On that reserve everybody got on’, Carmel said. ‘There was only one toilet, one wash house and I don’t know how we all got on, you know. Most of the time we were living in a tent until Dad and Mum got a little cabin, which was two bedrooms and a kitchen.
'We didn’t have anything. We slept on the floor most of the time, just growing up with some of the members of the family. The others I didn’t grow up with at all, the younger ones.’
Carmel told the Commissioner that she’d been sexually abused once by her father before she arrived at the Catholic mission. Then, in the mission school, she was touched inappropriately by one of the teachers, Mr Davies, who’d asked her to come to the front of the classroom to read to other students.
‘He was sitting there and I went to start to read, and I felt his hand go up the back of my leg. I kicked him, and I walked back to my desk and sat down. I just thought that he was going a bit too far. I knew what I was looking at.’
On another occasion, Davies put his hand on Carmel’s leg while he was driving and she pushed him away, then got out of the car as soon as she could.
Carmel was also sexually abused while still a ward of the state when she went home for holiday periods. The abuse was perpetrated in separate incidents by two friends of her father.
At 16, Carmel met a man and moved in with him. ‘I took the opportunity and he was very good, and he sheltered me and sometimes sheltered me a bit too much. But when I look back on it now, it was safe because I didn’t have to put up with any of the other stuff that was going on.’
Despite being with her husband for more than 40 years, Carmel didn’t tell him about the abuse, except for ‘a little bit’.
‘I haven’t told no one. You are the first. With the abuse it even affected like my marriage. Me and my husband had lots of fights over you know, sexual things because I didn’t want him to touch me. That’s how it’s been in the 41 years that I lived with him.
‘Up until then I kept it to myself and put up with an argument, that’s all. It is hard. I didn’t realise – all of this is coming back to me because I’m thinking more. I was really mean to him because of that. I didn’t like anyone touching me, not even for cuddles.’
As part of the 2009 Western Australia redress scheme Carmel received $13,000 but she hadn’t disclosed all details of the sexual abuse. The accompanying apology had no meaning for her.
Carmel had never spoken with her children about the abuse and on the morning of her private session with the Royal Commission told them only that she was going to a meeting.
As they were growing up Carmel felt keenly her loss of opportunity because of her lack of schooling; as an adult she enrolled in classes so she could help her children with their homework. She thought she might one day talk to them in more detail about her experiences as a child on the mission.
She’d worked hard to ‘break the cycle’ of abuse and violence that she’d grown up with, she said, and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were all doing well. ‘You know, with my children and grandchildren and great-grandies coming on, I keep myself strong for them. I love each one of them.’