‘Sexual humiliation is a form of punishment – exposure of private parts. For example, we were thrown over the bed with our pants down in front of 10 or 20 other children. In most instances, the nun would jump on us and hold us down with her knee in our backs with one hand pressing our head into the bed preventing us from being able to breathe or scream. We were trapped in a very humiliating position.
‘Mentally this was very confusing to cope, because the nuns on one hand always taught us to be completely covered up. You should never get changed in front of others. When we bathed with others we would have to wear aprons like outfits. It was a shameful thing to expose yourself, and because that is all most of us were ever taught – that it was a terrible sin to ever let anybody see our sexual organs. It was very traumatising and sexually confusing when this punishment was used on us.’
Eliza became a state ward in Victoria ward in the 1960s at the age of eight. She’d been in a Sisters of Nazareth children’s home from the age of five months and she remained in institutional care until she turned 18.
Eliza described the Sisters’ punishment of children as routine and often ritualistic. Every night after prayers children were made to line up holding out their underwear to be inspected. Anyone who was ‘guilty’ was made to keep hands on their head for several hours.
‘On several occasions we would have to stay like that until the early hours of the morning’, Eliza said. The children would be watched over by a nun saying the rosary and if they moved, the nun would ‘stop, walk over, drag the guilty party out of the line and beat the hell out of them’. Eliza said she couldn’t count the number of times this happened to her.
She told the Commissioner that one nun would sometimes make her and others stand outside at night in their underwear. They weren’t allowed to speak and Eliza remembered shaking uncontrollably with cold. ‘When the ritual came to an end the nun would make you beg for forgiveness and say you were sorry even though they didn’t tell you what you had done wrong. I would try to nod my head as much as I could, because my mouth was frozen and I couldn’t even talk. I would agree to anything. I just wanted relief from the cold.’
In 1970, after absconding from care, Eliza was sent to a government correctional facility. Made to strip naked, Eliza said the inspection of her body and being told to ‘part my legs’ was humiliating. ‘I was a nothing’, she said. ‘They were heartless. I was 14 years old and had spent my whole childhood in institutions with no criminal offences, except that at 12 years old I started to run away because I could not take the abuse any more. I was now a criminal, or treated like a criminal. I was now marked for the rest of my life. The state had more rights over my body than I did.’
After being put in an isolation cell for 48 hours, Eliza was sent to a clinic in Melbourne for a vaginal examination. She said the doctor who carried out the procedure had ‘the biggest smirk on his face’ and didn’t make eye contact with her as she was held down by two staff members while the examination was carried out. Afterwards she bled a lot and was told by another girl at the centre that she was no longer a virgin.
‘So far to date not enough emphasis has been put on the government-sanctioned rape of thousands of children by the medical industry. Many young girls were virgins, they knew this. They didn’t care. They labelled us as promiscuous, wayward, exposed to moral danger, morally corrupt. In other words, in their eyes we were sluts. That enabled them to justify their collusion with the medical industry to gain subjects for their medical experiments.’
After they’d been in the facility for several months, girls were allowed to go on day and weekend leave. Eliza said when they returned, girls would be made to strip while a staff member ‘put her finger inside you to see if you were trying to sneak anything in’. She said one staff member seemed to enjoy doing this. ‘I cannot describe this as my body goes into spasms just thinking about it’, Eliza said.
Eliza told the Commissioner the impact of the abuse had remained with her through life. Although she’d had health checks related to ante and post-natal care, she wouldn’t otherwise undergo any medical investigation. She’d only had one Pap test in her life and said she’d rather risk dying from cancer than go through the procedure. She’d always had trouble with intimacy.
‘I know this sounds awful and I feel bad, but I used to fake it with my husband, do you know what I mean? I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be normal and have kids. I always knew there was something wrong with me ‘cause I didn’t really have a sex drive.’
Eliza never reported the abuse to police and she’d not spoken about it apart from in ‘bits and pieces’ with women she’d kept in touch with who’d also been in the institutions. She made a civil claim against the Nazareth Sisters in the mid-2000s and received $20,000 of which $5,000 went in legal fees. She didn’t receive an apology nor did she think she wanted one.
‘I know those nuns and they’re liars’, she said. ‘Even still today some of them would lie their heads off. I wouldn’t believe them. If they come to me, or one of them came to me, and you can sort of tell you know, if I thought they were genuine, but no I don’t believe that order of nuns. And I’ve had Loreto convent nuns and I’ve had Good Shepherd convent nuns, and yeah they were bad but the Nazareth nuns are the most wicked of all.’