Catherina was born 75 per cent deaf, in Queensland in the 1960s. When she was two, she and her siblings were sent to a Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. Catherina never got to know her siblings because they were removed while she was ‘left behind’ for more than a decade. She told the Commissioner, ‘I found out my mother was ashamed of me because I was born deaf’.
At the orphanage, Catherina did not receive support for her disability, and her education suffered as a result. ‘I was way up the back and I was the shortest one’, she said. ‘I couldn’t see what was going on. Basically I just followed the leader.’
Catherina was repeatedly abused by the nuns who made her clean the bathroom with her own toothbrush. If she was sick during a meal, the nuns would call her ungrateful and make her eat her own vomit. Catherina also remembers being locked in a dark room with no food or water for two days. When a nun finally came to release her, and saw that she had defecated on the floor, Catherina was thrown against the wall and beaten until she bled.
One day, Catherina was sent to a farm to spend the weekend with an adult couple. ‘I thought that I was getting adopted out … I think I was between seven and nine. And I was with this horrible, horrible man … I remember everything on that property and I will always remember him.’
The man took Catherina to a caravan, showed her pornographic pictures and said, ‘This is what I want to do to you’. Later that night, he came into her room, removed her pyjamas and abused her.
‘I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t push him away. I didn’t know what was going on. He did what he had to do and he left the room. He tried to sneak in the bathroom a few times but I locked the bathroom.’
After this incident, Catherina refused to return to the farm and was punished for it. ‘I was only there for two nights. It was more than enough.’
Catherina was also sexually abused by the nuns and other children at the orphanage. She does not know the names of the abusers, but she can recall an occasion when some boys tied her up in a field.
‘The nuns used to sit there and laugh, and tell the boys to do things to you as well. I don’t blame the boys for that … The nuns were watching and they would tell children to do it. If they don’t do it they would get sent to the dark room or get a hiding as well. So they were just doing what they were told.’
Around the age of 10, Catherina attempted suicide after she was abused by a girl in her dormitory. ‘I used to always cry myself to sleep and she’d come at me with a pillow, shove it straight in my face, telling me to shut up … I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had no one to talk to. I couldn’t tell the other nuns because they were just as bad.’
Fear of the things she had witnessed at the orphanage kept Catherina awake at night. She developed insomnia, and would often spend her nights looking out of her window. Some images would haunt her for the next 50 years.
In her early teens, Catherina was moved to a different institution that ‘was a bit better’. Life there was still hard, but she did receive some support in the form of speech therapy and assistance with literacy.
When Catherina left care in her late teens, she took any job she could get. ‘I have been in so many different jobs. I don’t usually last long because I’m not very good at reading and writing.’
Catherina has had several unsuccessful relationships, and gave birth to a daughter who also ended up in care. ‘I became a very heavy drinker ‘cause I couldn’t cope. The hard part was they took my little girl away from me.’
‘When they took my daughter away from me I went to the rehab, and I did quite well actually … The welfare said that if you take care of your daughter, and you go and straighten up, you’ll get your daughter back. And that’s why I did really well. It took eight months. Usually it takes over a year and a bit, but I thought that seeing my daughter … it helped me get through it quicker.’
While in rehab, Catherina received further literacy training from a very encouraging instructor, but her literacy is still limited. She spent her life learning by watching other people, and is very good with her hands. ‘I was too scared to ask for help … I just did what I had to do.’
These days, Catherina has a supportive partner who doesn’t know the details of the sexual abuse, but does know that there are some topics she can’t talk about. Catherina also now has a very close bond with her daughter who has children of her own.
‘I still have nightmares every now and then, I still have it now. Sometimes they just pop up, I don’t know why. And when I have bad dreams, for some reason my daughter always pops into my dream. At all different ages, she could’ve been a baby, could be a little girl. For some reason she’d always jump in and my dreams stop.’