Glenys’s first memory as a three-year-old taken to a Sisters of Mercy orphanage was the ‘black material down to the ground’ of nuns’ habits. She has no idea how she came to arrive at the orphanage, except that her mother ‘had too much sex and too many children’. Glenys’s many siblings were also put in care.
Made a ward of the state of Victoria almost immediately, Glenys remained in the orphanage until she turned 16 in the early 1970s. Throughout her years in care, she experienced severe emotional and physical abuse in the home, and sexual abuse during a holiday placement.
The reverend mother in charge of the orphanage, Sister Giovanni, was ‘pretty evil’. She would regularly get one of the boys to take a ‘switch off the tree’ and use it to beat the children.
‘She would sit in front of you and she would pick off the pieces of wood and you’d be waiting to see who was going to be whacked’, Glenys said. ‘And if he didn’t get the right switch, he copped it for getting the wrong switch, and yet he was her favourite ...
‘I always talk about the witnessing of abuse. We don’t talk enough about that. And you’re waiting for your turn and you don’t know when it’s going to come. She was pretty savage.’
Because she wet the bed, Glenys was constantly punished. One night she was woken by Sister Bernard who started ‘laying into’ and yelling at her, before forcing her to go to the bathroom.
‘I was holding my vagina, that’s what I was doing. I was holding myself so I wouldn’t wet the bed. And when I got back into bed, she said, “You know you’re a dirty, filthy, disgusting girl for doing those dirty things and you need to cross your hands like this and make sure the devil doesn’t make you do those things you know, with your body”, blah, blah, blah, and “I’m going to come and check you every single night”.’
When she was about 15, Glenys was sent interstate to stay at a farm for the holidays. She was told she’d be paid, but after working as the family’s domestic help for weeks, the mother told Glenys they liked her so much they’d decided to include her in the family ‘and not give you money’. During her time on the farm, Glenys was sexually abused by one of the sons.
‘He was very sneaky’, Glenys said. ‘He said, “Come and meet me in the outside toilet” on this farm, and I didn’t know what I was going there for; I was very naive anyway. He molested me in the toilet, and I couldn’t do anything about it. You couldn’t tell the nuns. You couldn’t tell [his mother], and I just had to suck it up. But I was very wary of him after that. I just wouldn’t be alone with him anywhere.’
Even at the time it happened, Glenys thought that he ‘wouldn’t have done that to his friends’ and ‘he knew what he was targeting’.
Glenys told the Commissioner that she ‘became tougher after that’. Her files from the orphanage, which she found years later, point to changes in her behaviour but this was never questioned. ‘One year I’m good, and the next year I’m, you know, a little shit.’
Of the more than 25 nuns Glenys met during her 13 years in the orphanage, she recalled two who were kind. One ‘didn’t stay long’, but the other, Sister Catherine, seemed remarkable to Glenys because ‘she smiled at the children’. One day after Glenys had helped polish the floors, Sister Catherine gave her a holy card and said she’d done a good job. ‘I was 11 when I got that. That’s the first form of praise [I ever got].’
Glenys described one of the effects of her years in the orphanage as hyper-vigilance.
‘I’m always on guard, who’s going to get me, you know. I have to know how to get out of the room, right? I’m casing the joint … I can’t stand anyone touching my back. I don’t trust easily. This is not good, but I have to tell you, I have a resentment of the middle classes – I think you understand why – because I think they’re enablers, and they used children like me from homes. They exploited us you know, on their farms and in their houses. They exploited us sexually, physically and emotionally. I hate all religions equally.’
Glenys has been married for over 40 years. Having children had been extremely anxiety-provoking because she ‘had no idea how to be a mother’. She’d sought assurance from her husband John, that if anything happened to her, their children wouldn’t be put into care.
The thought of needing residential aged care in the future alarmed her. She’d done a lot of work advocating for and supporting those who’d been in homes and orphanages as children and this concern had been expressed by many others. Glenys had often raised it with service providers.
‘That’s the greatest fear for us homies, that we’ll be re-abused in a nursing home. And I’ve told them I’m going to be feral. You give me a scoop of potato in an ice-cream scoop, you’re going to wear it.’
John told the Commissioner that being with Glenys was ‘like being with someone who grew up in a totally different culture’.
‘Just the little isms and that, and the way Glenys reacts in situations is not how a person who grew up in a family would react to the same circumstance, and it’s very, it’s odd at times.’
John had supported Glenys in trying to track down her siblings. She’d met some of them, but they no longer had much contact and there’d been no support for them to reunite. Many had themselves been abused in homes and orphanages.
She helped one brother, Kevin, receive financial benefit from the sale of their parents’ home, and he’d been able to live in his own place for at least a short time before his death. Kevin, ‘had a terrible life, and he was raped by public servants and Christian Brothers and other boys’ during his time in institutions.
Part of Glenys’s advocacy work included campaigning for a national redress scheme, and she hoped all states and territories would soon agree to participate. She recommended that the states’ public trustees be informed about the particular needs of adults who’d been in orphanages and children’s homes. And she thought the work and findings of the Royal Commission should be a subject taught in high schools.
‘We owe you our deepest gratitude. The nation owes you that, right, because you’ve had to listen to old boilers like me, and far more horrific stories than my story. My story is very tame, and I’ve got the greatest respect for all those people whose suffering I’ve had to listen to over the years. They’re just horrific.’