Eva’s parents ran a farm in a remote area of the Northern Territory where there were no schools, so from age four they sent her by plane to board at a school run by Catholic nuns.
Eva lived at the school from the mid-1950s into the early 1960s, encountering throughout that time a regime of physical, mental and sexual abuse. The cruelest of the nuns, she said, was a woman named Sister Benedict who would pick out a child during study period and fondle him or her in full view of the class.
‘I’ve never forgotten it. Just so degrading. In my group of boys three committed suicide, I don’t know about the girls. It was like, 50 odd years ago and I still don’t forget it. She made us feel like shit. And she’d say we were ugly, we were disgusting, we were hussies. She totally dehumanised us.’
Those who resisted Sister Benedict’s assaults were brutally strapped with an electrical cord. ‘You could tell all the boarders: we had all our hands ripped open, we were all bloodied. A couple of weeks before we were due to go back home she wouldn’t do that anymore, she’d just punch us in the head as hard as she could.’
The abuse changed Eva. Once introverted and shy she became an angry, outspoken girl. Ironically it was these very qualities that enabled her to escape the school. Laughing, she explained to the Commissioner how she ended up being expelled.
‘When I was about 12, I was eating my evening dinner, this other nun, Sister Genevieve, who was also extremely cruel, just – I wasn’t doing anything wrong – she grabbed me by the hair and pulled me backwards. I fell on the cement floor and cracked my head, and it hurt like hell. And I jumped up and before I even realised what I did – like in a split second I thought, “God, I’m taller than you now”. And I pulled my fist back and I punched her as hard as I could in the stomach and she just went flying. And all they kids they were so happy.’
Eva was sent home. She copped a beating from her mother, but never had to go back to the school again. A few years later, Eva’s mum died suddenly. Eva’s father couldn’t look after the kids and so Eva and her sisters were sent to a welfare home.
Mr Simons, one of the house parents who ran the home, was a ‘real sleaze’ who sometimes exposed his genitals to the girls. Eva said that Mr Simons sexually abused many of the kids in the home but, because of her reputation for being ‘uncontrollable’ he didn’t touch her. Instead he sent her to live at the babies’ home nearby.
Eva would sneak out of the babies’ home to visit her sisters who were still living under Mr Simons’ watch. On these occasions both Mr and Mrs Simons would call the police and get them to remove Eva. Eva said that in many ways Mrs Simons was as bad as her husband. She knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it and had no sympathy for the girls, jealously viewing them as ‘the other women’.
At 17 Eva fell pregnant. From the moment the baby was born she had to fend off constant pressure from the authorities to give him up. ‘I was working seven days, seven nights a week and I’d take Christopher with me where I could and other times I’d have to take him to babysitters and whatever. But they would come midnight and bang on the door and want to have a look in my cupboard. There was never food for me but there was always food for Christopher.’
Eva’s dream was to get a place of her own where she could look after Christopher and her younger sisters. Eventually she managed to make this happen. Sadly, as Eva said, ‘by then it was too late’. The legacy of the abuse stuck with her and she has struggled with it her whole life.
‘I had nightmares for years. I had no self-worth. I end up with loser blokes. I’m an intelligent person but I just can’t shake this “You’re no good, you’re bad, you’re dirty, you’re disgusting”. I have anxiety attacks, I have panic attacks. I’ve had really top jobs and that, and after about six months I just walk out. I leave them. I can’t stand anyone round the back of me because I know someone’s going to punch me in the head or hit me really hard. And it all comes from that convent.’
Eva still doesn’t trust anyone to believe her story, which is why she’s never reported the abuse to police. She said she could only manage to tell a small part of her story to the Royal Commission. ‘I’m always frightened of digging up. You get these people saying, “You should get it out”. No you shouldn’t. If it’s hidden, it’s hidden for a damn good reason.’