In the late 1960s, five-year-old Deborah and her two sisters were removed from their mother and placed under a care order that was officially supposed to last one year. The time limit was ignored and the three girls ended up spending 11 years in various Catholic-run foster homes, where they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused.
They spent the first few weeks in short-term accommodation run by Catholic nuns before being placed in the care of a foster family. There, all three girls were abused by their foster parents.
‘It was just constant terror’, Deborah told the Commissioner. ‘I remember being sick and throwing up on the bed and being pulled up by my hair and being told how disgusting I was and just thrown into the shower.’
After about two years the situation suddenly changed.
‘One day we came home and they just weren’t there anymore. Strangers were there. And we were told that those other people had gone and we had to live with these people now. They were sacked, which we found out later.’
The new foster father sexually abused Deborah. But she told the Commissioner that the emotional and physical abuse was ‘just as bad as the sexual abuse. We were told constantly “Your own parents don’t want you. Nobody loves you”’.
Out of the abuse came complex feelings of guilt and shame.
‘I had buck teeth and I used to eat my cereal and each time I’d eat my cereal I couldn’t help it, my teeth would clink on the spoon, and he used to grab my head and rub my face in the cereal.'
'And the other kids would just look, horrified for me, but also part of it – we carried this enormous guilt because when it was happening to someone else we were glad it wasn’t happening to us.’
Deborah said that she was occasionally visited by a child services worker but was always too terrified to speak up about the abuse. Plus, she doubted that anyone would believe her. The foster parents were skilled at hiding the truth behind a pleasant facade. ‘It was all show one thing, do another.’
Over the years the couple used Deborah and her sisters as free labour to clear the garden on their newly-purchased house. When the work was complete they moved on, leaving the girls with a new set of foster parents who were ‘more neglectful than abusive’.
The same cycle continued, and in a few years there was another set of parents. The new foster father sent Deborah’s older sister away and some time later Deborah was sent to live with another family too. They were kind people but it was a struggle to make the change.
‘I had to leave my 12-year-old sister there, and that’s the hardest thing I ever had to do because she had no one then. And I was given two days. Two days' notice.’
At school Deborah ‘acted out’ but she managed to pass year 12 and entered university a few years later. ‘I put myself through uni and got a degree in youth work and have worked with disadvantaged young people for 25 years.’
Throughout this time Deborah struggled with depression, post-traumatic stress and attachment-adjustment disorder. ‘I also became an alcoholic, but sort of a relatively functioning one until 17 years ago I joined AA and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since then.’
Several years ago she participated in the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process. Initially she was disappointed with the slow pace and the inadequacy of the investigation, but after two years the experience took a positive turn.
‘Eventually they went on to investigate everyone and they substantiated it all, and that has made an impact on my life, to get that validation.’
She was particularly impressed with the two nuns who attended her session. ‘They were great. They cried. And especially they understood what it was like for me to lose my faith, because that’s all I had. And people don’t understand, to lose your faith – because if you believe in God it gives you something. Thank God I was able to get that back.’
Deborah said she was grateful for the $50,000 payment that she received and was especially pleased that after taking so long to substantiate her own claims, the Church accepted her sisters’ claims automatically without putting them through the stress of another investigation.
Although her experience with the process was largely positive, Deborah is critical of many support services. She believes that they are often patronising and condescending. They encourage survivors of child sexual abuse to take on the role of victims rather than empowering them to move forward.
She told the Commissioner, ‘It keeps people trapped, it keeps people in the victim mentality’.