Iris was five when her mother died. Along with her older siblings she was put into a couple of Catholic children’s homes during the late 1960s, then briefly returned to her father and his new wife. Her stepmother was physically and psychologically violent however, and so Iris was placed in a children’s home in Melbourne run by the Sisters of Mercy.
When she was 12 years old she was sent to stay with the Hansen family over the Christmas holidays and attended church services and related activities with them. The daughters went to a girls’ group run by the Salesians and Iris accompanied them.
Some of the girls were taken to a drive-in by Brother Carlisle, who they had met through this club. During this trip he asked for one of the girls to sit with him in the front seat and Iris volunteered. While the movie was playing Brother Carlisle sexually abused Iris.
‘He touched my breasts, put his fingers in my vagina. Very uncomfortable.’ For the whole time she stayed with the family he would seek her out at other activities and abuse her in the same way.
One of the older daughters, Emmaline, had a summer job assisting elderly people in their homes and took Iris along with her to visit a client they called Pops, although he was no relation. While Emmaline was working, Pops asked Iris to sit on his knee, ‘which led to him touching my breasts, and his fingers going inside my vagina – this happened on quite a few occasions’.
The last time ‘Emmaline walked in while he had his fingers inside of me. She told me to get off him. She knew what was going on, and never said anything to anyone, not her mother or anyone’.
After this Mrs Hansen told Iris that she was not allowed to accompany Emmaline next time, as ‘Pops doesn’t want me to visit again’. This made her feel like she was at fault. ‘I couldn’t understand what I could have done wrong ... I can remember really crying.’
Iris did not intentionally disclose this abuse to Mrs Hansen but wrote about it in a diary she had been given for Christmas. Mrs Hansen read the diary, and told the nuns from the home that Iris had made up lies. ‘I was taken back and made to write three apology letters – one to the family, one to the Brother, and to Pops.’
Back at the orphanage a nun called Sister Bernadette would come into Iris’s room at night, and ask her to rub lotion into her back, inner thighs and naked bottom. Iris was the only child made to do this and felt very uncomfortable, and questioned why she had to touch the nun in intimate areas. ‘At times as soon as she would let me go I would run straight to the toilet to be sick.’
When Iris was 13 she was allowed out of the home on her own to go walking along the nearby beach. One time she saw a young man motioning to her from some scrub and as she went over to him he attacked and raped her. She returned to the home very distraught. ‘I didn’t say the word rape, because I didn’t know that word ... But I said that someone had hurt me, and touched me down there.’
Despite there being physical evidence of the assault, including ripped clothing and blood on her underwear, Sister Bernadette said nothing had happened and that she should shower and go to bed. ‘I was terrified and scared that the guy could have followed me back and raped the other girls.’
Iris was not allowed to speak to police, but later saw in a newspaper that a man fitting the description of the one who attacked her was wanted for raping young girls in the area. For many years Iris felt guilty that she had not disobeyed the nuns and gone to the police, assuming she was the first victim and that she may have protected other girls by doing so. She has since reflected on the way the man operated and now believes there were probably victims before her.
At 14 years old Iris moved to a hostel also run by the nuns, before running away with another girl. They ended up hitchhiking and getting a lift with two truck drivers who gave them beer, which made them very drunk as they had not eaten for two days. Her friend offered one of the men sex as ‘payment’ and left her with the other man, who then raped her. Eventually the girls were picked up by police and returned to the hostel. The manager asked if they had been raped but Iris did not disclose the assault, given that the nuns had not done anything about the previous rape at the beach.
Although Iris wanted to study at university the nuns sent her to work as a ‘checkout chick’ instead. When she left their care she had no life skills and no sense of belonging or identity, and without any support was left to ‘sink or swim’.
She married and had children early on and said, ‘I’m a hermit, I don’t have a social life’. She doesn’t trust others and she experiences PTSD, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Her family only know that she grew up in a home, but not what happened there.
Every day is a struggle and she finds it hard to assert herself. She remains socially isolated because she has been used by people in the past and fears this happening again. It is only in the past few years that Iris has disclosed the abuse with the help of a sexual assault service and mental health worker.
‘I’m trying to have counselling, but I think it’s a cop-out because there are so many more people worse off than me ... I feel like I am taking up space, taking up air, wasting people’s time, and not worth anything ... Every moment of every day is a big, big effort just to stay in this world.’