Gayle said she’d heard a lot about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, and she wanted it known that nuns could abuse children too. When her parents were posted overseas in the early 1970s, Gayle and her sister were sent to board at a Catholic college in New South Wales for a year. From the time of her arrival at 13, Gayle was sexually abused by Sister Martha, a Sister of the Good Samaritan Order.
‘Sister Martha was in charge of the dormitory and the abuse started on my second day’, Gayle said. ‘I had a cold and she told me I needed to have liniment rubbed on my chest. She rubbed in and around my breasts and kept going and going. I didn’t know what she was doing. Her breathing changed and she closed her eyes, her face went all red and she didn’t stop. I’m sure now that she was aroused to the point of orgasm.’
Gayle told the Commissioner that Sister Martha was cruel and vindictive towards many of the girls, but that she went out of her way to belittle and embarrass Gayle.
‘I remember it was my birthday and she caned me, all the time while she was singing “Happy Birthday”. There were two other girls I believe she sexually abused. One’s mother was dead, and the other didn’t have a father. She knew the weak ones to pick on.’ Gayle said her sister sized Sister Martha up early and let the nun know she’d be in for a fight if she tried to pick on her.
Sister Martha supervised the boarders at night. ‘She’d wait until everyone was in bed and then she’d come to my bed and close the curtain and do whatever she wanted to. It wasn’t every night, and you never knew when it would be. But that was her power: that she could do it and you never knew when.’
Gayle said she didn’t understand the abuse at the time. ‘I took sexual abuse to be rape, and this wasn’t rape. I see it now for what it was: a criminal sexual assault.’
She felt embarrassed and ashamed, and didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until a school reunion in the 1990s when she mentioned it to a friend. ‘We went into one of the classrooms and the liniment smell was there. As soon as I smelt it, the whole thing came back.’
She said that it was hard for anyone to listen to her talk about the abuse, because they didn’t know what to say. ‘I’ve been a successful professional woman for years. I have wonderful children and grandchildren, but I wish this horribleness wasn’t there. When someone has power over you like that, it gets in your head and is associated with all sex. I didn’t know anything about sex. You keep going through it.
‘It’s harder, not easier, the older you get.’
Gayle said she still had faith in the Catholic Church, but thought it needed an independent external body overseeing its processes. ‘The counsellors in schools are employed by the Church and I don’t know that’s always helpful. I’ve spoken to various priests about abuse, but I don’t think they understand the nature of power.
‘People in authority have a lot of power and they can misuse it.’