At the age of four, Jackie was looking after her baby brother by changing his nappies, giving him his bottle and stealing food to feed him. ‘My father was an alcoholic. My mother had just left us, just kept roaming off. And we kept jumping from house to house; apparently there were people complaining about us.’
Jackie’s mother ignored warnings that her children would be taken from her and in the 1970s, Jackie was sent with her sister to a nearby Queensland orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. At the same time, her other siblings were placed in separate foster homes.
From the outset, the nuns told Jackie she was useless and that her family didn’t want her. Between the ages of four and 11 when she left the home, she was trained to do heavy laundry work while receiving poor schooling. The Sisters of Mercy constantly beat the children – using dust-brooms, canes and their hands.
Those, like Jackie, who were bedwetters were dealt particularly severe treatment. ‘They used to rub my nose in it. They’d make you walk down the hallway with the wet sheet over you, give you cold showers, wallop you, belt you for doing it. That just makes things worse, doesn’t it?’
One day at school, a nun asked how Jackie got the welts on her legs, and she replied she’d been hit for wetting the bed. ‘The first thing she said was, “Don’t lie. Don’t say that. Nuns wouldn’t do that to you. I should wash your mouth out.” It’s like, who do you turn to?’
While at the orphanage, Jackie was sexually abused by Father Heaney, who would force her to sit on his lap and fondle his genitals, while he touched her genitals. She found out later that her sister was another of many girls being sexually abused by the priest, and she was sure the nuns knew about Heaney’s behaviour. One day she witnessed a girl refusing to take morning tea to the priest and telling the nun it was because he was touching her. ‘She copped a wallop for saying that. She got the flogging and then [the nun] said, “Take it into him now”. So, yes, I know they knew. I know they did.’
Several girls became pregnant while living in the orphanage, a result she thought of being abused by older boys. When the pregnancy advanced, a girl would be sent away. She was always ‘different’ when she returned. ‘All they’d do is sit and cry and cry and cry. You’d go to the nun, “Look she’s sick. What’s wrong with her? What happened to her bubble?”. [And they’d say], “It’s none of your business. Go away.” A lot of sexual abuse went on.’
When the orphanage closed in the late 1970s, Jackie was sent with her sister to the home of Mr and Mrs White, where they were treated like slaves. Mr White would forcibly tongue-kiss and grope her and when Jackie told Mrs White, she was disbelieved. ‘[She said], “Why would he do it to you if he wouldn’t even touch my own daughter”, or something like that she said. It’s like, wow, how would you – where would you get that from?’
Visits from the government’s welfare branch were conducted around the kitchen table with Mrs White present. By that stage Jackie felt no one would listen to her, and had learned not to complain.
Jackie thinks it is important that children placed in care be given opportunity for one-on-one interaction with authorising staff so they can discuss things of difficulty. Greater connection with the community is also necessary, she believes. ‘They should give children more meetings together with other carers, you know, with other children to show them that they are not the only ones, that there is a group of kids.’
At 13, Jackie was taken by her mother for what was meant to be a short visit to Melbourne, however they didn’t return. Her mother was admitted to hospital and Jackie was ‘dumped with’ people she didn’t know. She approached a Victorian government welfare department but was told they couldn’t help because they didn’t have her file.
Jackie ran away after her mother tried to prostitute her, and at 16 met her future husband, Leo. They married and had three children and, but for a separation of two years when Jackie was 20, had been together ever since.
‘Like they say, you only have one best friend in your life and I found him.’
Years later, when Jackie got a job with a Queensland community organisation, she was disturbed to find her work brought her into contact with a nun who’d held a senior position in the orphanage. ‘They praise her all the time and they’re like, “She’s a lovely lady, she’s this, she’s that”. I have to walk out of the room. I can’t stand it.’
Jackie described triggers that brought back memories of the abuse, including particular smells, her husband’s whiskers, and the sight of a child neglected on the street. In earlier years she’d used alcohol and drugs like speed as a means of coping with disturbing memories, but she doesn’t anymore.
In the 2000s, Jackie received an ex-gratia payment of $7,000 from a Queensland Government Redress Scheme followed by a further $6,000 two years later. She hasn’t sought or received compensation from the Sisters of Mercy or Catholic Church, but expressed a desire they acknowledge the harm done to children like her under their care.
‘I’d love to have an apology from the Sisters of Mercy. I’d love to get that. That might help that little bit.’