Gladys was raised by her grandparents until her grandmother died and her grandfather, unable to look after her, paid for her to stay at a protestant orphanage in Melbourne. Gladys arrived at the orphanage in the early 1960s, when she was about 11 years old.
She told the Commissioner that it was tough at first to make the change but in time she grew to love the place. It was run by a kind couple named Mr and Mrs Brown who lived with their children in an apartment on the orphanage grounds. ‘It was like one big family’, Gladys said.
The only downside came in the form of Ms Lewis, the woman who looked after the kids whenever the Browns were away on holidays. ‘Ms Lewis should never have been out there, never. She was the most horrid person. She was so cruel to the children.’
It was under Ms Lewis’s watch that Gladys was sexually abused. She told the Commissioner that she’d never seen the man before that night, though she later learned that he worked on the grounds and had been sexually abusing her friend, Sally.
In a written statement, Gladys said, ‘All I remember is Paul Venables coming into my cubicle and saying, “You have angel eyes”, getting into my bed, and then I remember him saying, “Am I in?” I had no idea what he was talking about. Soon a lot of people, a lot of yelling, people running and him running out. Still a lot of yelling and lights on’.
Later, after speaking to Sally, Gladys learned that some of the staff had seen Venables’ ladder leading up to the girls’ window and had raised the alarm. At the time, Gladys had no clue what was going on. She remembered how Ms Lewis dragged her into the boardroom to be interviewed by police.
‘She was pushing me and shoving me, and of course, 14-year-old, you can’t stand up to an adult. I wasn’t brought up like that. You do as you’re told, you don’t open your mouth and you only speak when you’re spoken to.’
From then on, Gladys was made to feel like a criminal every step of the way with no explanation of what she might have done wrong. After she gave her statement at the police station one of the officers took her down to the cells and told her that she was lucky she didn’t end up in there. She and Sally were labelled ‘bad girls’ and separated. Sally was sent to a women’s prison, Gladys to a convent where she worked doing long hours of hard labour in the laundry room.
Eventually the day of the trial came and Gladys had to testify against Paul Venables while he sat in the room, watching her. Later she was told that Venables was convicted of carnal knowledge and sent to jail. This gave her some relief, until years later when she discovered it wasn’t true, and that Venables had actually been given three months’ parole.
Life was a struggle for Gladys in the wake of the abuse. Her low self-esteem left her vulnerable to certain types of men, and she moved from one abusive relationship to the next. ‘I don’t know how to have a stable relationship’, she said. ‘I don’t think I’m worthy.’
But there was some good that came out of these bad relationships. ‘I don’t think I was a good mother, just lucky my kids are around me, and my beautiful grandchildren and great-grandson. They are the only reason I’m still alive.’
Her other sources of help and support have been her friend, Sally, and her counsellor. Gladys reconnected with her friend a few years ago when Sally asked for help in the legal case she was pursuing against the orphanage. While chatting with Sally’s lawyer, Gladys reached a turning point.
‘She actually used the word “rape”. It was like running into a brick wall, and I realised that that’s exactly what it was. Before that I just said that I was assaulted and shrugged it off … And I thought, I need help, I need to do something about it.’
Gladys sought counselling, a move which she still considers one of the best she’s ever made. ‘With my counsellor’s help I’m finally feeling strong enough to stand up and be heard.’