At the age of three, Gerardine was taken from her siblings, father and grandmother and placed in a Sisters of Mercy orphanage in regional New South Wales.
She recalled, ‘driving up the big driveway and I remember the nun coming out and I hid behind my dad and they were grabbing me and pulling me away from him. That’s what I remember clearly’.
Until she left the orphanage in her mid-teens in the late 1960s, Gerardine had no sense of belonging.
‘You’re not a child, you’re nothing. You’re nothing. How can I put it? You don’t get birthdays … you’re locked in cupboards for four and five days, and abuse constantly, not knowing why when you’re little, and then as you get older, you lose yourself. You lose yourself.’
A visiting priest used to come to the orphanage and girls would be chosen to help him prepare to administer the sacraments. Gerardine was about eight or nine when she was sexually abused by the priest.
‘You were special, right? It was first touching you down below and stuff like that, right? Then you went over to the house, that was different. That was totally different.’
She said ‘the nuns were the same’ in their various abuses of children.
‘They didn’t know when to stop. You could say, “Sorry, sorry”, and cry and cry, but it didn’t stop. Or if you were yanked out of bed and taken down to the dungeon, that was just plain out violence. Like, it’s hard to describe, like things when you’re little or when you’ve had a flogging with the cane or a strap … I used to watch the bruises on my arms or my legs and I used to call them rainbows, ‘cause I watched the colours change. I don’t think there was a day that didn’t go past that all kids got hurt in that orphanage.’
Although Gerardine was close to her father she only saw him occasionally during holiday periods.
‘When I was 10, I was shown a cross, and it said, the nun said, “Your father hung himself and he’s going to hell”. And that’s something – I wasn’t allowed at his funeral so it’s hard to put it all into – where I did have the love, was taken.
‘So from 10, this is going to sound weird to you – I decided because of everything that was happening, the abuse and everything else that was going on and because I wore signs on my back that the devil was in me, I decided – I sat on the slippery dip and I decided – me and the devil would make friends with each other and that was my companion right through.
‘The number of times that I ran away from that place to be brought back by the police and them not do anything. The police say they’ve got no reports right, but children don’t run away from abuse and take themselves back to what has harmed them. They don’t. They just don’t do it.’
After leaving the orphanage, Gerardine ‘decided on roaming the streets’ of Sydney and at one stage was ‘charged with vagrancy’ and imprisoned.
She’d tried to take her own life and had spent several long periods in psychiatric hospitals. Gerardine described having difficulty raising her children because she ‘didn’t know how to love them because my life was so screwed up’.
In the late 1990s she met a psychiatrist, and ‘after 12 months of seeing her I opened up and talked’.
With the psychiatrist’s support she’d tried to report the priest and nuns to NSW Police.
‘What they said is I would have to give dates, months, winter, summer. I didn’t even celebrate birthdays so I couldn’t give that information.’
At around this time, Gerardine also participated in Towards Healing. She ‘was confronted by two nuns from the orphanage’ who she thought ‘were there to intimidate me’.
At the end of the process Gerardine received $80,000, but half was paid to Medicare and another $27,000 went to her solicitor.
One of the things Gerardine found most difficult in life now was a feeling she was being ‘judged on the past’. She’d been involved in care provision proceedings for her grandson and during these, one of the court workers had brought up that she’d been in an orphanage, not because it was relevant to the discussion but because ‘they just wanted the court to know’.
‘It takes you back. It takes me from there to there, and I’m thinking I want to be here. And like, if you go to a doctor’s right, and they see one scar on you, you’re judged. Stop the judgment you know. Train your doctors, train the university student doctors that are coming through not to be judgmental because you see a scar. I’m not trying to be rude but you put a cancer patient and an abuse patient that’s got scars, they’re treated like they’re mad. It’s treated different. Change that. Help us that we don’t have to keep fighting.’