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Gay's story

Based on information from others it seemed likely to Gay that her mother had postnatal depression when she took her own life in the early 1960s. Gay was two months old, the youngest in a large family and while her siblings stayed living with their father, Gay was sent to live with the Coopers, a couple who lived in the same New South Wales town. ‘I was told my birth mother had asked Mrs Cooper to look after me if anything happened’, Gay said.

Gay stayed under this informal foster arrangement until she was 13 and remembers the Coopers as a kind and caring couple. In 1975, Mrs Cooper became unwell and spent long periods in hospital. One of the hospital’s senior staff members, Peter Burchill, noticed that Gay was a regular visitor there and organised for her to stay at his house on weekends.

In her private session and in written documentation to the Royal Commission, Gay said that she was sexually abused by Burchill over a period of about four years starting from the age of 12.

‘I remember his wife was often away, however I am unsure where she went. Mr Burchill would come into the bathroom while I was in the bath and offer to wash my hair, wash my back and other body parts. He would wash between my legs.

'I would sleep in a separate room and Mr Burchill would come and say goodnight and give me a kiss on the lips and often try to put his tongue down my throat.

'He would touch me on the breasts and other areas of my body. Sometimes he would grab my hand and put it down his pants. I would try to pull his hands away from me. He would often lie on my bed or ask me to lie on his bed. If I refused he would come to my room anyway.’

Burchill told Gay that if she told anybody what he was doing she wouldn’t be allowed to see Mrs Cooper. ‘He said, “This is our little secret”.’

After the death of Mrs Cooper in 1976, Gay was made a ward of the state and went into temporary care, where she experienced severe physical abuse. She was then placed with another couple and over the next few years continued to see Mr Cooper, who’d gone into an aged care facility.

She visited him during the school lunch hour and any other free time and Burchill knew this and would wait, offering Gay a lift to the facility. Whenever she got into the car Burchill would sexually abuse her.

‘If I ignored him and started walking away he would slow the car down and idle it along beside me. He would tell me to “Get in” or “Jump in” the car. Sometimes I would, however I began trying to avoid seeing him if I could. I would sneak out the back of Mr Cooper’s and find ways of getting into trouble at school so I could get a lunch time detention.’

Gay noticed that female staff at the hospital would walk the other way when they saw Burchill and she heard them making comments about him touching them. She didn’t know why the nuns at school didn’t question her getting into the car or Burchill’s behaviour when he’d openly kissed her, but thought it was likely linked to the position and standing Burchill held in the community. ‘I don’t know if they were naive or they just turned a blind eye.’

The abuse by Burchill stopped when Gay moved away from the town at the end of the 1970s. Her first marriage didn’t last and in her next relationship Gay found out from police that her partner was a paedophile.

She was raped by him one night while several of her siblings were staying in the house.

‘I did not say anything. I believed if I did my family would probably have killed him and it was not worth them going to jail.’

Gay’s first disclosure of the sexual abuse by Burchill was to her first husband, but he wasn’t supportive. She saw different counsellors a few times over the years but didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about the abuse and ‘only discussed unrelated aspects’.

In early 2016, she started having flashbacks and told her local doctor about the sexual abuse. ‘I just found him to be extremely understanding and supportive’, Gay said. She has also found support with staff of a regional Aboriginal organisation.

Gay recommended regular contact and monitoring of children in foster care.

‘The state welfare department should have checked on me more often and had better contact with me. I only remember personally meeting with them a few times despite living with numerous families throughout my childhood. I did not have opportunity to develop any trust and tell them what was happening and they did not ask me the right questions. They were only concerned with how I was going and fitting in with the new family.'

‘I would like children who are wards of the state to have more support. I would like the state welfare department to have greater contact with children who are under their care, both formally and informally. There needs to be better training for all workers. People with authority need to see warning signs if something is not right and be more aware, and counsellors should be provided to children in care.’

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