When her school discovered that Cora was regularly beaten by her schizophrenic mother, she was removed from her family and placed in a Catholic convent home for girls in Melbourne. She had also been to court for breaking and entering and had received a bond. She was 11.
Instead of the intended relief from the violence at home, Cora was put to work as slave labour and physically and sexually abused at the convent home by older girls while the nuns ‘turned their backs’, she recalled.
Cora understood the marital problems of her parents, both from eastern European countries, were compounded by her mother’s mental illness. But while she was born in Queensland, she could not make the girls at the home understand that she, like them, was Australian.
Out of the six children in her family, ‘I was the one that copped it the worst’, as the eldest, Cora said of her stays at two different Catholic girls’ homes and later at hostels.
‘I was the one put in a home where they didn’t give me a chance to go to school’, she told the Royal Commission. She emerged after more than four years in the two institutions barely literate and later ‘taught myself the best I can’ to read and write.
Cora was mentally and physically abused by the nuns – mainly, she recalls, working as a punishment on the asphalt basketball area ‘with a toothbrush in the rain’. Another instrument of physical abuse was ‘the whip’.
‘The nuns turned their backs a lot. Every time I asked for help, they never helped me. And you know I needed clothes, I needed underwear. There was nothing. I had to be dressed in rags – the dresses that ate you around your stomach line and round the top.’
When older girls began sexually abusing Cora as she struggled to stop them pushing ‘things’ into her, the nuns, again, ignored her. ‘They [the girls] did, sort of, penetrate me. I was bleeding’, Cora said of one incident at the convent home.
‘You’re stuck. You’ve got about three or four girls jumping on you, kicking you and bashing your head in and doing whatever down there, trying to, whatever.’
The nuns told Cora she would never amount to anything – a sentiment repeated in documents she obtained under Freedom of Information legislation ‘through all the homes and hostels’ she attended.
The nuns ‘made me see a psychiatrist who went against me and they kept saying I’ll never be okay, I’ve got very bad schizophrenia. Because at the time I couldn’t defend for myself. Every time I opened my mouth I was told to shut up. The girls in the home they would bash you up because you were the youngest … They attack you in different ways, sexually, to try and break me … bashing me head in, grabbin’ me legs’.
Eventually she was given strong medication while working with heavy machinery in the industrial laundry. ‘I seen it happen, girls get the fingers caught and almost all the fingers chopped off, almost melted …’
Sent to the second girls’ home where Cora scrubbed kitchen floors and did other ‘dirty jobs’, she endured an attempt by other girls to drown her, as well as attempted sexual abuse.
‘I was down there, I couldn’t get up. I was down in the water, down, right to the bottom … because they thought I was going to open up me mouth about what they were doing … the sexual side of things. And not only me … I saw it happen to another girl and they actually succeeded with her’, Cora said of the insertion of ‘instruments’ into the girl, including a toilet brush.
That home, Cora said, was just ‘like being in jail’. It was here that she said older girls put ‘vomit’ and ‘shit’ in the food given to the children. ‘Everybody’s eating and you could smell it, something’s wrong with your food … the girls did that.’
When picked up by police after her frequent escapes she was always too fearful to disclose the abuse.
She ran away so many times she was placed in hostels.
Eventually, while still a teenager, Cora began living with the man who became her first husband. Technically, though, she was a ward of the state until the age of 21.
When Cora tried to disclose the abuse as an adult, to friends, ‘a lot of people didn’t understand’.
‘Get over it, they kept saying. What are you talking about … We don’t want to hear it.’
During marital problems in her 20s, Cora told her GP about the abuse, but in a breach of privacy ‘he turned around and told my husband’.
Still consulting a psychiatrist for her ‘under control’ schizophrenia, Cora says she has been depressed at times. She would like to access compensation if a case against the Victorian Government or the order of nuns that ran the home was possible.