Catherine was only a little girl when her youngest brother was born and her mother fell into the ‘postpartum blues’. The condition was extreme and Catherine’s mother was eventually hospitalised. Soon afterwards, Catherine and her brothers were sent away to Catholic orphanages. It was the mid-1950s and Catherine was six years old.
Catherine’s orphanage was run by Catholic nuns. She told the Commissioner that she witnessed their brutality, ‘from the minute I stepped in there … If they weren’t doing it to you, they were doing it to someone else. It was all around you. The constant fear’.
One of the nuns, who was ‘quite sadistic’, added a sexual element to the punishments she meted out. She made the girls line up outside the bathroom. Those who had ‘done something wrong’ were called in one by one.
‘And it could be just so minor, you just blinked or looked the wrong way. So then you’d go into the bathroom – and then everybody would be outside, hearing it.’
Catherine was called into the bathroom several times herself. She told the Commission that the nun forced her to lift her nightie and then strapped her across her bare bottom with a piece of linoleum. It was painful, but Catherine said she didn’t cry out, ‘because if you cried out you got more’.
At other times, one of the nuns would make the kids stand naked in a line while she walked up and down ‘inspecting’ them. On one occasion Catherine woke up in the nun’s bed, not knowing how she got there.
When she was eight years old, Catherine was given the job of looking after 12 of the younger kids.
‘The Sister handed me a strap and said, “Look, this is what you do” and took a child and just strapped their hand. The child hadn’t done anything.’
Catherine refused the strap at first but the nun insisted.
‘Anyway, I just took it. And the children were chasing after me and trying to hit me so I just waved the little strap in the air. But after they realised I wasn’t going to hurt them, they were fine after that. So I didn’t need to use that strap. So I don’t know why they did.’
On rare occasions, Catherine got to see her brothers who were staying at another home nearby. She recalled one time when she was sent there on an errand and arrived just as one of the nuns was attacking the smaller children, ‘flogging and screaming’. Seeing Catherine, the nun ‘stopped, dropped the strap. But my little brother, he must have been around four at this time, picked it up and ran after her with it. So it must have been so empowering for him to see me there’.
Catherine said she could never tell anyone what was happening at the home, especially not her mother.
‘Mum was a very warm-hearted person. When she first came out to see us, she looked at us and cried. I thought “I can’t say anything to her”.’
Catherine left the home when she was about 10 years old. She and her brothers returned to live with their mother. Catherine said, ‘I don’t think Mum was really ready to have us home. I had to then look after the family’.
It was a tough time. Catherine’s brothers had been traumatised by their experiences at the home and would act out in various ways. Catherine felt conflicted about how much she could reveal to her mother. ‘I had to try and tell her but not tell her.’
From then on, Catherine always felt like she was the one who had to remain strong and take care of the family. It was a heavy task, for the family faced more than its share of tragedy. Both of her brothers died when she was in her early twenties. In the aftermath, Catherine immediately stepped in to look after her mother.
‘I was always the carer. And there was never any thought that I needed caring, because it just didn’t come up. I always felt like I had the biggest of rocks on my shoulder. It was just always there, this huge responsibility.’
It was only later in life that Catherine took a serious look at her own wellbeing.
‘I was married and that broke up and then I had a relationship and that broke up, and I thought, maybe there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I better check that out.’
In the 1990s, she approached a Catholic support group and shared her story. She said it was an overwhelming experience. ‘And God, I was a mess after that.’
From there she took a proactive approach to her mental health, seeking out counselling and using natural remedies. In the late 2000s she participated in the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process. She received some compensation and an apology, but was left feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. She’s now exploring further legal options.
‘We’ll see how we go with that. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t. But it’s worth having a go as long as it doesn’t affect my health and I do it in chunks that I can manage … I just like to see things completed that I start.’