There were at least a couple of hundred Aboriginal children at the Benedictine mission, just a couple of hours out of Perth. Dina was sent there in the late 1960s, at the age of six, after she was removed from her parents and made a state ward.
The mission wasn’t a happy place to grow up. Dina had to bathe in water that had already been used by many other girls, sometimes even sharing the same bath. The kids didn’t have shoes, or proper medical care, and their main meal was often ‘sheep’s head broth’. Made to do hard physical work, they were always hungry. Some of the priests sexually abused the girls, a number of whom became pregnant as a result.
In Dina’s case, she was abused when waiting to collect her little brother from the boys’ part of the mission, to go out with their parents. She was alone with a priest while she waited, and he asked if she had any boyfriends.
‘He walked over, and he started fondling me all over. When he went up my dress, I hit him. I king hit him. And he got the shock of his life, he did. But he still rushed back very nasty, trying to grab me and that ... I don’t know how I got away from him.’
This abuse happened a couple more times, until Dina told her father. ‘I said to my dad straight out, he’s feeling me here, and he’s feeling me there ... Well Dad nearly hit the roof. He went in, and he wanted to half-kill him in there, but other Fathers came and got him and put him out.’
Dina didn’t speak to the nuns about what the priest was doing, ‘because I didn’t want to be insulted by any of them’. She knew, too, that some of the Sisters were already aware that girls were being abused, and even facilitated the priests’ access to do this.
Physical abuse from the nuns and priests was common. One of the Fathers split Dina’s head open with his strap when she didn’t know the words to a particular hymn, leaving a permanent scar. Although the Sister who tended these injuries confronted the priest, Dina was still terrified to go to singing.
The girls working in the kitchen got to eat the proper food the nuns had, ‘sweets and all’. When this was Dina’s job she’d pile up her plate and save some for her little sisters, or sneak them biscuits and other treats. Other times, she’d steal fruit meant to be fed to the poultry.
Dina ran away a few times, and was beaten and had her hair cut off when she returned. Her parents complained about this, but the nuns told them ‘you can’t do nothing. They’re in our care’.
Sometimes Dina’s parents took her and her siblings out for holidays. The whole family would cry when the children had to return to the mission.
Expected to become domestic servants, the girls weren’t given much education. The nuns providing lessons were so prone to violence that the kids spent more time watching out for the next hit than concentrating on their studies anyway.
The nuns got Dina and her cousin jobs at a local cafe. The boss soon propositioned her, but she told him ‘I’ll cut it off before I give you sex’. As for her cousin, ‘I think she was satisfying him’.
Dina deliberately got pregnant when she was 16, as soon as she left the mission, against her parents’ wishes. She decided to do this so that she could make a family with her husband, and get custody of her younger siblings who were on the mission. When she got them out, she looked after them until they were of age. At one point her own sons were placed in care for a while.
Many years after she left, Dina took her family back to the mission site, which is now a tourist attraction. Insulted at being asked to pay to enter the place where she was subjected to so much misery, ‘I said, I’m not paying nothing. I said, I’m walking straight through’.
Dina applied to the Western Australian Redress scheme. The lady who helped Dina write her statement hurried her, and she was unable to disclose the sexual abuse. She received a payment of $28,000.
Later, the Catholic Church awarded her $5,000, telling her just to ask if she needed any further help. However, whenever she’s approached them for assistance, this has been refused.
Dina helped remove some of her grandchildren, including six-year-old Ellie, from their family in the early 2000s, as it was an unsafe environment. ‘I had to fill out these papers and everything’, and assumed she would be able to take the kids home with her. When she went to collect them, they had already been signed over by the Department of Child Protection (DCP) to other relatives.
One of the primary carers, Anthony, had a lengthy criminal record, and Dina knew he’d been ‘mucking around’ with children. She objected to this placement, telling the DCP the kids would be unsafe with him, but was told ‘the papers are signed now’. Every chance she got, Dina would ‘get them away from him’ for holidays, and it was ‘heartbreaking’ to take them back to him and his wife.
Anthony sexually abused Ellie for the next few years. Dina knew something was wrong – ‘I tried my best to help her, but she wouldn’t tell me nothing’. Ellie finally spoke to some other kids about what happened, and they reported it to an adult. The DCP and police were contacted, and Ellie made a statement. Anthony has since gone to court over the abuse, but Dina is unsure of the outcome of this trial.
Dina has never had any proper counselling about any of these experiences. When she has tried to speak with her doctors about her needs, ‘all they want to do is stuff you with pills’. A group of women in her community ‘have our cries’ together, and support each other. She tries to stay strong for her kids and grandkids, because when they have problems ‘they come to me’.