‘I was not meant to be’, Gwen told the Commissioner. And when she was a little kid in 1960s Tasmania, her father used a horse whip to remind her that she was unwanted. Gwen ran away from home constantly to escape his beltings and eventually at the age of nine or 10 was made a ward of the state.
Gwen was from a large family but she was the only child put in care. Being ‘just a little thing’ in the children’s home she was bashed quite a lot and would hide in a cupboard.
It was bad, but the Catholic convent she was transferred to at the age of 12 was ‘the beginning of a nightmare’.
The girls had hardly any dealings with the priests. But every day after breakfast, the nuns would walk a different girl out of the dining room and over to the church.
The nuns said they were on cleaning duty. But it wasn’t just cleaning. ‘You’d go into the church and you’d stand at the door behind the altar. And he’d come out and … You had to do what you were told … The girls were sexually abused in the room behind the altar.’
Gwen was sexually abused twice a week for over a year.
‘You knew your day was coming. And every time my day came I tried to run away.’
The girls talked to each other about it. Some of them remained friends after they left the convent. Some have since committed suicide. For one girl, ‘the abuse that she got was too much and she went crazy’.
The girls told the mother superior what the priests were doing, but that just ended in punishment. They also complained to the child welfare director when they went to his office for clothing allocations.
‘We told him and he laughed in our face and told us that we were children. Children were never to be heard and never to be seen and he just kept on placing us back down there. They knew about it. The police knew about it.’
But the police were good to Gwen when she ran away.
There was a police prosecutor who’d get the duty cop to open up a cell for her. That way she got a clean bed and a home cooked meal. ‘The police didn’t want to take me back. The police didn’t want to take any of us back. They knew what was going on.’
They took a formal statement from Gwen when she was about 12. She believes one detective made an official report to the minister for child welfare which was swept under the carpet.
Gwen’s foster father, whom she’d had since the age of 11, also tried to help. He witnessed her biological father drag her across the road by the hair when she was little. And now he tried to help by taking her out of the convent on weekends.
‘If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t be here today.’
Gwen was transferred to a hospital for the mentally ill when she was 13. But it was a solution to her runaway behaviour not a cure for mental illness. ‘Us children weren’t like that, it was just a place where they could lock us up.’
Sexual abuse of the female patients was rife. ‘What the staff used to do - it was something that a human couldn’t bear. We used to have to watch because they’d do it in the big bathroom. Then they’d say to us girls “If you don’t shut up, if youse report it, this is what you’ll cop”.’
Gwen did cop sexual abuse from the staff. She was there until she was 18 and the sexual abuse continued until she was older and could fight back.
‘We did have one good staff member … He knew what was going on. And sometimes he’d unlock the two front doors and deliberately leave them unlocked so that the girls that were copping it could run away … He’d leave a car up on the back hill road so us girls could get away … He was our saviour.’
She asked one policeman why they couldn’t help. He said ‘they’re government … We’re police and they’re government’. Her foster father knew about the hospital but was told that if he didn’t mind his business, he’d lose his government job.
‘The day I was released from wardship I stole money from my foster father … I stole clothes from my foster mother. I jumped on the first plane out of that state and I came here.’
Gwen has never received treatment for her depression and anxiety because, following her abuse by the hospital staff, she has no respect for mental health practitioners.
She has tried to sue the convent but Towards Healing ‘denied everything’, saying the allegations against the Church couldn’t be sustained.
‘Because I didn’t tell them exactly what the priests did … He’s saying to me “Did he put his penis in your mouth?” and this and that. I mean, I’m a kid. I didn’t know any different. It was only when I was starting to hit maturity that we understood it. And … the way they were putting it, it was as if we were just filth.’
Gwen tried to describe the impact of the abuse on her life. ‘It’s like a nightmare for the last 45 years … and you never wake up. I can just sit at home and then just all of a sudden I’ll starting thinking of why they did this. For the love of God I’ll never work out why humans do this. I just can’t.’