As a child in Malta in the 1950s, Domenica never knew exactly why her mother gave her and most of her siblings up for care. She suspected it was because her father was a violent alcoholic and she spent most of her early childhood in an orphanage.
‘My mum kept having children but none of us were home with her … I think she did it all in good faith, you know. But she wouldn’t have known we were gonna get treated like we did.’
When Domenica was 11 in the mid-1960s, she and several of her siblings were told they were going on a long boat ride. ‘And before I knew I was on a boat to Australia … It took us a month to come over by boat. But when I got into the home, into the orphanage you don’t realise. I thought I’d be able to just go across the road and go back to home.’
Upon disembarking in Western Australia, Domenica was sent to live in a girls’ home run by a Catholic order of nuns, while her brothers went to a different orphanage. It was many years later after accessing her records that Domenica discovered they had been sent to Australia as part of a Catholic migration scheme.
Life at her new home was harsh, particularly because the nuns were physically violent towards the children.
‘They used to hit us across the knees with baseball bats … I used to go to bed and I’d be so sore. And the next morning I’d get up and I’d be so sore I couldn’t walk. I was only a young girl. And you’d think I was an old woman, the way I walked ’cause I used to be sore all over the place. And then they used to pick you up by the ears or twist your nipples … They even used to kick you in the vagina.
‘Every time I used to hear footsteps I’d be shaking … I don’t think Hitler would have thought half of the punishment they gave us. You know, they were so cruel. They used to get a bucket of water, stick your head under. I got it so many times, I learned to hold my breath … She said to me “One of these days I’ll kill you”. She said that to me “I’ll kill you with your head under water”.’
Children at the home were expected to perform various chores, one of which involved assisting the priest to set up the church for a service. When performing this duty, Domenica was encouraged by the nuns to sit on the priest’s lap.
‘He used to want me to go and sit on his lap and I didn’t want to. Anyway he used to get me sitting on his knee and then part my legs with his knee like that, and pull my pants across and he used to finger me … And I couldn’t understand it. Here’s this nun telling me to go sit on his lap. And I couldn’t go and talk to her about it because she’d think I’m a liar and then I’d get the biggest belting around. And every time I was on church duties the same thing happened.
‘They had confession and I didn’t know what to say to him. Because as far as I was concerned I wasn’t being the one who was naughty. He was. And I said to him one day “Why do you want to touch me there?” … And he said to me “You’re a pretty little thing” … He used to try and give me lollies.
‘I thought “Who’s gonna believe you?” The priest, he’s supposed to be good like a police officer. Like a police officer you’re supposed to go up to him and he’s supposed to help you. And this priest looked as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.’
Domenica was regularly abused by the priest for approximately two years, as well as by a group of older girls who would molest her in the showers and toilet cubicles. ‘Once again you couldn’t tell anyone. Any problems that happened you couldn’t tell anyone.’
At 15, Domenica ran away from the home but was found by the police and taken to a remand centre before being made a ward of the state. Although she was a state ward, she was able to work which paid enough to rent a room with another girl. At 18, after her wardship was terminated, Domenica met and married Tobias, but the marriage only lasted five years.
‘I think when I was 23 we separated … I couldn’t hold a relationship down. Because after what that priest did, I used to be paranoid when it comes to, you know, loving. I just wasn’t a loveable person. I’m still not … I came across some beautiful men. And they were very good to me. I mean it, they were beautiful men. But when it came to loving and all that ...’
Domenica was in her 30s when she began her career in nursing, finding particular satisfaction working with elderly patients. ‘I thought, I got mistreated when I was younger. No way in the world anyone’s gonna mistreat these patients. And if I ever see anyone hit them or anything I will dob ’em in.’ Domenica worked in geriatric nursing for over 30 years, only recently having to give it up ‘because of my knees’.
When she was 40, Domenica returned to Malta to visit her mother. Her father had already died. ‘I was pleased I did it. But my mum, she didn’t feel like my mum because she gave me up. Oh you know, I came to Australia when I was young. I didn’t feel anything for her.’ Her mother has since passed away.
Domenica has never sought compensation from the Catholic Church but may consider taking civil action in the future. She disclosed the abuse for the first time very recently to her brother. ‘He was so angry about it.’ Although she has had counselling in the past she has never felt comfortable discussing her child sexual abuse and is not interesting in pursuing further support. ‘I’ve handled it myself all this time. I mean obviously I’m still dreaming. I still dream about it … As I get older they get stronger.’