Gayle was placed into care as a toddler in the late 1950s, and later made a state ward. At the age of 11 she was sent to a Sisters of Mercy children’s home in suburban Melbourne, living with half a dozen other children. The nuns sometimes taught them but were not involved in the home otherwise.
Rather, it was run by two lay women who Gayle knew as Aunty Rhonda and Aunty Irene. Rhonda groomed Gayle ‘with treats and special meals’, and soon began sexually abusing her. Gayle continued to be Rhonda’s ‘sexual partner’ for the six years she lived at the home.
At night Gayle would sneak past Irene into Rhonda’s room. Rhonda ‘encouraged me to lie with her in bed night after night and passionately kiss her. I would lie on top of her. She would lift my nightie and ask if I was wet'. When they sat together in Rhonda’s car she ‘encouraged me to place my hand down the front of her skirt into her underpants’ and ‘derived sexual pleasure from this and expressed this with sighs and groans’.
Gayle believes Irene must have known, or at least been suspicious about the nature of this relationship. At least once she had commented to another girl that Rhonda was ‘obsessed’ with Gayle.
This sexual activity continued well into Gayle’s adulthood, after she had left the home. ‘The really, really worst thing is that this person, this woman, Aunty Rhonda, was in my life until I was in my 30s.’
At one point in the 1970s she tried to cut contact with Rhonda. She reported the abuse to Father Churchill, who was associated with the home (and for whom she had posed naked for photographs). The priest told Gayle that Rhonda was having a nervous breakdown from loving her too much.
Even after Rhonda became angry at her for not visiting regularly, Gayle continued to see her. ‘I would say that she was a termite bored into my head because I still continued, months and months later, after the childish guilt trip I suppose, because she had spoiled me a lot.’
In the 1980s Sister Maria was in charge of the home, and Rhonda was still working there as an ‘aunty’. Gayle went to see the nun for counselling and disclosed the abuse, but no action was taken. Instead Maria coerced Gayle into a sexual relationship with her. While this was damaging for Gayle, she believes because she was an adult this would be considered a consensual sexual relationship.
In the 1990s Gayle went to see Sister Catherine, who she had viewed as a mother figure during her childhood. When she disclosed the abuse, the nun told her that she already knew about it, but there was nothing she could do for her. She said Gayle had ‘a chip on my shoulder’ and that she would pray for her. This was the last time they spoke and ‘I didn’t even go to her funeral’.
Gayle said that the abuse ‘has haunted my adult life’. She has sought psychiatric and psychological support ‘because of the constant triggers of the damage that her sexual abuse leaves with me’.
‘I feel that if the abuse had not happened to me I would be a very powerful woman. My education slipped when I was extremely confused, knowing that something was not right.’
A decade ago Gayle reported the abuse to the Sisters of Mercy, and went through the Towards Healing process. The nuns she directly dealt with were pleasant and kept her up to date. She told them the full details of the abuse in a private hearing, and she felt like they believed her.
It was a relief telling the nuns about the woman they had assigned to care for her and feeling like they listened to her. ‘There’s no blame as to the nuns that worked tirelessly, and trusted people to look after myself and others.’
During the discussions Gayle asked for acknowledgment and an apology, for Rhonda to be reported to the police and put on the sex offenders register, and for a copy of a letter she had written to be sent to Rhonda. She also requested a mediation session with Rhonda, as she wanted Rhonda to remember her and feel shame for what she had done.
The Towards Healing process took two years and Gayle eventually accepted $40,000 to help cover some medical expenses she had at the time. In the final letter she received from Towards Healing they said they would report Rhonda to police, but as she has not been contacted by police herself Gayle does not think this has happened.
She has received correspondence from Rhonda’s lawyers denying her request for mediation, and stating Gayle’s memory of her age at the time was inaccurate and any further allegations might incur costs.
Gayle told the Commissioner that ‘knowing someone’s stolen your innocence ... goes deeper than your heart’ and ‘it bruises your soul’. ‘I could have damaged myself and not be here. Until I found that I had some love for myself.’
In her 40s she attended a workshop that taught her to love her inner child. ‘And I was crying for myself, and started nurturing and feeling lighter and loving – knowing that I could not hurt, I would not suicide, I would not hurt myself.
'Why would you hurt something you love now? I don’t want my childhood back because I found my child as an adult, and I love her.’
Since this Gayle has been managing much better. Now she can now talk about the abuse without looking for any action or outcome, other than to not keep it a secret anymore.
‘We’re survivors, and not hiding.’