In the 1970s, Gemma was made a ward of the Queensland state and placed with her sister in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. For the six years until she left the Sisters’ care at the age of 15, Gemma was sexually abused by three different offenders.
It was one of the girls’ duties in the orphanage to take morning tea into Father Heaney and when they did he would sexually abuse them. Gemma said he would make her sit on his knee and rub his erection on her and try to kiss her. ‘Sometimes he would make me sort of - he’d make me sit on the edge of the bed and he’d put his arm around me and, you know, talk to me and tell me I’m a good girl, and a couple of times he’d make me lay on the bed beside him and play with him.’
She was sure the abuse was known to the nuns because another girl who’d disclosed Heaney’s behaviour had been beaten and called a liar. On another occasion, Gemma was proudly wearing a necklace Heaney had given her when she was told by a nun to take it off and that she wasn’t allowed to go into his room alone again.
‘That’s when I realised they knew.’
Gemma told the Commissioner that when the orphanage closed in 1978, she and her sister were transferred to a group home still under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy. She described how one of the cottage parents, Mr White, would make her kiss him good night and try to put his tongue in her mouth. He’d also come up behind her and fondle her breasts while telling her she was a good girl.
Gemma’s younger sister was also abused by White but when Mrs White was told of the abuse she refused to believe it. ‘She turned around and said that basically I was lying, because they’d been married for many years and he’d never touched anyone before, so why would he suddenly start now? “He doesn’t touch his own children”. So I just kept it to myself.’
During holiday time, Gemma was sent to the home of the Mahers who owned a local shop. One day she was cornered in the bedroom by Mr Maher who kissed her, fondled her breasts and digitally raped her. Gemma later complained to Sister Margaret about the abuse saying she didn’t want to return to the Mahers.
‘She told me I should be grateful that somebody actually wanted me because I was hard to find holidays for.’
Gemma also disclosed the abuse to her grandmother who told her to tell the nuns about it and that it would stop. ‘But I had to go back there for holidays again.’
Gemma married at 18, had a child at 19 and left her husband at 20 after he displayed violent behaviour to her and their son. ‘I know for a fact my first husband, I married him for all the wrong reasons … he wanted me, nobody else did. I had a child because nobody loved me and he would. I know that now. Back then, I didn’t.’
Gemma remarried and has been with her current husband for 23 years. She hasn’t told him about the abuse and isn’t sure if she will, though she said he knew of her appointment to tell her story to the Royal Commission. She said the sexual abuse had a big impact on her relationship. ‘I can’t even have sex because I hate it. My husband doesn’t understand … sex is a big part of a marriage and if one partner doesn’t enjoy it, it puts a lot of pressures and it’s all because of this when I was a kid, and I know it is.’
In 2007, Gemma received an ex-gratia payment of $7,000 through a Queensland government redress scheme. This amount was given to all children who’d been in institutional care and there was a second process for those who’d been abused. Gemma’s application to this, for further payment, was declined. ‘They just went, “Sorry you’re not entitled to any more”. I thought, oh, okay. To me, it felt like it didn’t exist. It mustn’t have happened.’
Gemma has never applied to the Catholic Church or the Sisters of Mercy for compensation, and finds it a matter of some distress that she still sees many of the nuns from the home. She said she wants to tell them the effect of their behaviour and treatment. ‘Every time I see a nun from the orphanage I want to throw something at them, shake the shit out of them, knock some sense into them.’
She also wants an apology. ‘The Sisters of Mercy need to pay. They need to do something. They can’t get away with it. They have got away with it for this many years. I mean, the Catholic Church, they knew what was happening and they did nothing to help us.’