‘My mum died – she got killed in a car accident. There was me and my brother and my sister. We went to live with my father’s mother, but she couldn’t cope with us. Not that we were naughty kids, but she just couldn’t cope’, Jonica told the Commissioner.
So Jonica, age five, and her two younger siblings were placed in a Catholic-run orphanage in Melbourne.
Jonica’s first memory of the orphanage is that she and her younger sister were separated from their brother, then just 18 months old. It was ‘heartbreaking’, she said.
She asked over and over again to see her brother but was never allowed. ‘They wouldn’t tell me where he was’, she said. She got into trouble often, and was threatened with different punishments. I’d say I just want to know where my brother is.’
It was the early 1960s, and the regime at the orphanage was a strict one. ‘I remember it was quite unhappy times, and the nuns were fairly mean to us’, Jonica said. There were many rules to keep and instructions to follow and if you didn’t you’d be disciplined. ‘They were pretty quick to hit you with a stick’, Jonica recalled.
‘I just remember being really, really unhappy.’
When Jonica was about six, she was sent to a foster family for the weekend. She doesn’t remember anything about the adults who were in charge. But she remembers being taken to a back bedroom by three or four teenage boys. They locked her in a wardrobe. Eventually they pulled her out, threw her on the bed and made her pull her pants down. Then they sexually molested her.
‘I was screaming and crying but no one was hearing’, Jonica said.
Jonica didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. ‘I was scared. Really scared.’ But she thinks now that perhaps there was an inkling that something had happened, as years later she was contacted by the Mother Superior from the orphanage, who wanted to come and visit her. In her 80s by then, the Mother Superior flew to the small town in Northern Queensland where Jonica was living to meet with her.
‘I was always worried about you and just wanted to know how you’d turned out’, she told Jonica.
Jonica had had some troubled years. She had developed a heroin addiction, and had been a sex worker for a while. But she turned her situation around, discovering a different approach to life through Buddhist philosophy and a memory of her mother’s words.
‘I don’t know if she ever said it to me but I like to think she did: “If you can lie straight in bed, Jonica, and you’ve got a clear conscience, you’ve had a good day.” And one of my favourite sayings is “Good things happen to good people”. So I always make the effort to be a good person.’
She had three children, and brought them up with some of the advantages she never had. ‘When I was growing up, no one was encouraging me, no one was inspiring me’, she said. Where she was crippled by low self-esteem, her kids are full of confidence. ‘I lifted my kids up – what I didn’t get, I gave to them.’
Jonica has seen psychiatrists and psychologists at different times over the years but didn’t disclose the abuse to them. ‘Up until the last few years I just wanted to keep it where I’d stashed it. I knew it had had a big effect on my life, but I just wanted to keep it in that safe spot.’ When she did finally talk about her abuse, she was diagnosed as having depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Recently she has tried to locate the records of her time at the orphanage. A support agency acted for her, and not long ago presented her with its findings. There was a record of her arrival and discharge, and a few photos. One in particular caught her eye. ‘It’s me, standing next to a taller girl, and I had a shoebox. And that was my whole life, everything was in that shoebox’, she told the Commissioner.
Jonica has not sought compensation but she would like an apology. ’ I know that’s how it was in those days’, she said. ‘But I don’t care. They failed in their duty of care. That’s the thing.’