The nuns at the Anglican children’s home in beachside Melbourne would beat Ethel severely almost every day, sometimes using a cat-o’-nine-tails.
One time when Ethel talked after lights out, Sister Mary made her hold her nightdress above her head, then beat her with a leather belt. Ethel was naked underneath her gown, and cried so loudly that her sister Beryl heard her and intervened.
Ethel avoided using the toilet because nuns would abuse the kids there, ‘and some of the older girls had learnt to do it, too’. As a result, she began wetting the bed.
She was punished for this by having to wear a hessian bag with signs reading ‘I wet the bed’, until her schoolteacher complained. She remembers the bag ‘really hurt’.
In the mid-1950s, when she was around eight years old, Ethel and a friend from the home went to the police, to report the physical abuse by the nuns.
Although they reported being flogged, they were returned to the home. She overheard the police having ‘a really good laugh with the nuns ... I felt terrible’.
As punishment, the nuns locked Ethel in a small room and painted her face with an antiseptic dye. ‘I had to stay there, until all the purple had worn off.’
Sometimes she would return to school in tears after lunchtime at the home and tell a certain teacher she’d been belted. This teacher would then let her have a lie down in the office for the afternoon.
Children from the home would be sent to stay with families during the school holidays. When Ethel was around 10, she was sexually abused on one of these placements. A man called Bruce, who was a friend of the family she was staying with, took her to the top of a wheat silo.
Bruce said, ‘If anything goes in that wheat, it goes right down, gets sucked down. If you fight to get out, you’ll just go further down. And I was terrified’.
He then raped Ethel vaginally and anally.
When she returned to the home, she had blood on her underwear and disclosed the abuse to a nun. ‘She told me I was a dirty little girl, and I got a hiding for thinking up such a thing. And they sent me again.’
Beryl was with her the next time she went to the family. Ethel hoped this might protect her, but Bruce repeated the abuse.
She told a visiting priest at the home about the abuse during confession. He responded by asking her to show him what the man had done, then sexually abused her, too. He also told the nuns what Ethel had confessed, and she was beaten for being ‘a bad girl’.
Ethel’s mother died when she was very young, but her father sometimes visited her at the home. She was unable to tell him about what was happening to her, as ‘he told everything back to the nuns, and we got in trouble for it’.
Ethel became pregnant when she 10 years old. She didn’t understand what was happening, only that ‘I was fat, and I was getting fatter’, and she was given medicine to take after every meal.
‘Then one day I got taken to the doctor. And I don’t really remember all of it, but I know after, my “tummy” had gone ... When we saw fat ladies, we always thought they were bad. You know, people who were pregnant, they were bad people.’
During her time at the home, Ethel used to enjoy gymnastics. Her association with her gym teacher lead to this woman’s husband taking her on holidays.
‘He was the one who used hairbrushes to rape me.’ Following this abuse, Ethel stopped participating in gymnastics.
Her oldest sister also abused her. She had ‘learnt some of the things that other people did’, and then ‘did it me ... I have a fear of her’.
In her mid-teens, Ethel went to live with her father. However, he ‘wasn’t a nice person’, so she got a job and left. She fell pregnant soon after and was married. She and her husband had more kids, and are still together. Her husband doesn’t know about the abuse she experienced. ‘He just knows I had a hard time.’
Ethel was an extremely protective parent. She did not allow her children to go on camps, and ‘they had a very sheltered life’. ‘Even at night time, it sounds awful, but if my husband needed to go to the toilet or that, I got up and checked that he didn’t go near them.’
When her daughter was in her 20s Ethel told her about the abuse, and she continues to be a major support. Ethel also spoke with her GP when she experienced depression and night terrors, and was referred to a female psychologist.
Ethel described a variety of impacts of the abuse, including a generalised fear of all men, and not trusting anyone enough to make friends. ‘I don’t like other people’, she said.
Since speaking to the police as a child, Ethel has not tried reporting to them again. She was unaware that she could make a claim for compensation from the Church. ‘I don’t know whether I’d do that, because you have to talk to men’, and she also prefers not to dwell on the abuse.
Ethel does not want to ever have any contact with the nuns or the Church again.
‘You’d walk in to the entrance of the home and here it says, “Suffer the little children who come unto me” ... And yet the nuns were so cruel.’