Fenella’s mother was 18 when she married and had four children. Her father worked as a labour contractor, and the family constantly moved around Queensland in the 1950s while he pursued different jobs. As a result, Fenella and her younger siblings did not get much of an education.
When Fenella was 11 in the early 1960s, her mother became fed up with living ‘like gypsies’, so she walked out. Fenella’s father moved the family into a house in central Queensland, leaving the children alone while he went off to work. During this time the neglect of the children came to the attention of the authorities and they were removed.
The children were placed in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy and separated according to their age. ‘All different dormitories we went to. They split us up … I always see my little brother: he was in a nursery with tears running down his eyes.
‘They wanted Dad to put us in as wards of the state. I don’t know whether it was the Catholic Church or the priest or whoever. He said “No”. He said, “I’m gonna get yas out one day”.’ Her father would often send gifts of fruit and biscuits, but these never reached the children.
The orphanage chaplain was Father O’Malley. Not long after Fenella arrived, O’Malley took her into his room, stripped off his clothes and rubbed himself all over her, making Fenella masturbate him.
‘The only thing I will say, he didn’t actually rape me. He just abused me with his penis, and so I think there was a lot of people raped from what I can gather.’
O’Malley abused Fenella in this way on about 10 separate occasions, but because she was a young girl she didn’t know his actions were criminal.
‘I didn’t know. I just knew that it was awful and dirty … He said, “Don’t tell anyone, this is our secret”. And he said, “You’ll have to answer to God ... And if the Sisters find out, you’ll be put in isolation and they will flog you”.’
On one occasion, Fenella and a friend ran away from the orphanage but were picked up by the police and returned. As punishment the nuns stripped them both naked and flogged them in front of the other residents.
Fenella lived at the orphanage for two to three years before she and her siblings returned to live with their father. By this time he had married a woman who had 10 children of her own, with all 16 people living together under the one roof. ‘It was pretty crowded.’
At 17, Fenella married and had two children, but as sex with her husband was a trigger for flashbacks of the abuse the relationship suffered. ‘I always had trouble having sex, was always seeing this face with a pair of glasses on. So then I had to tell him.’
Fenella disclosed O’Malley’s abuse to her husband in an effort to explain her reluctance to having sex. ‘I mentioned it to my first husband. I’d kick up a stink every time he approached me for sex. And he said, “What a load of rubbish!”.’
The marriage did not last beyond five years. ‘He didn’t understand. So he just kicked me out with the two kids.’
Fenella moved to a coastal city where she eventually met and married Greg. They had two children and Greg adopted Fenella’s children from her first marriage. Early on in their relationship Fenella disclosed O’Malley’s abuse. Greg has been very supportive and they have now been together for more than 40 years.
In spite of Greg’s support, Fenella went through ‘the dark years’ where she experienced depression, anxiety, PTSD, communication difficulties, chronic low self-esteem, poor concentration, social withdrawal and thoughts of suicide. Fenella suffers from recurring nightmares and tried to self-medicate for many years with alcohol.
‘That’s why I started drinking, I had nightmares about him. I was always trying to get away when I woke up.’
Eventually Fenella received psychiatric support to address her alcoholism. ‘I think it gives you a shock when my kids said to me, “We lost you for years”.'
Fenella noted that O’Malley, who is now dead, was later charged and convicted for the sexual abuse of children. She has never made a police report nor sought compensation. She has since disclosed the abuse to her father.
The support provided by her husband and children has given Fenella the incentive to try and move forward in her life. Regardless, she still suffers from nightmares and the image of O’Malley’s face continues to haunt her.
‘I don’t have as many nightmares as I used to but I always see that face in my head. So then I asked the psychologist in 2014, “How do I get that out?” She didn’t have an answer.’