When Kathleen was 11 or 12 her mother died. Kathleen and her siblings lived with their father for about a year, before they were sent to an Aboriginal mission in Western Australia, in the mid-1960s.
Life at the mission was very harsh for the children. When one of Kathleen’s sisters wet the bed, she was put under scalding water in the shower, leaving her with scars on her back. Children would also be thrown into ice-cold baths during winter. Kathleen told the Commissioner they didn’t get much to eat, so they would steal rotten fruit and chicken feed.
The children were given little clothing to protect them against the cold, and the only time they were allowed to wear shoes was when they went to church. ‘We never wore shoes or thongs or anything. Used to walk around on the gravel … A lot of girls ended up with stone bruises.’
The children were told that it was a sin to speak to other Aboriginal people, so they were not allowed to talk to family members if they came to the gate. Kathleen recalled that they were never taught about their culture.
The girls worked hard doing the cooking, ironing and cleaning for the nuns and priests. If the nuns thought that the girls didn’t to their jobs properly, they would hit them. ‘I got a hiding once when I was cleaning the parlour … They said it wasn’t shiny enough … They were going to belt me … My friend … hit the nun with the broom, and I grabbed the mop and I said, “I’ll do it for you” and when I was doing it, she grabbed the mop off me and hit me on the head with it, the nun.’
Kathleen believes that the hard work they were forced to do may have contributed to the chronic back pain she now suffers.
Kathleen and her sisters were sexually abused by priests at the mission. ‘I was scared myself … I think it was a priest … come in there and tried to touch me on my private parts and on my tits.’ Her sisters told her that the same thing happened to them. She thinks that one of her brothers may have been plied with alcohol and also sexually abused.
‘I run away from there once. Me and my cousin … they shaved us bald and told us to stand up in the middle of the thing while they laughed at us, and we had to go to the chapel and say three Hail Marys. That was during the night … one, two o’clock in the morning … They stood us up there and left us there.’ Kathleen told the Commissioner that she ran away because she was ashamed of being touched by the priest.
When one of the other girls wanted to run away, ‘the nun grabbed her and knocked her down … She was a big one … She grabbed her and sat on her and waited for someone to come and grab hold of her … They hit us with knives … heavy-handled knives’.
Although Kathleen went to school, she doesn’t think she learned much. She told the Commissioner that she couldn’t talk to the teachers at the school about the harsh treatment they received at the mission because, ‘The teachers, I think they were all just the same. They were from the same convent’.
When Kathleen left the mission she tried to get a job, but she was concerned about her younger siblings who were still living there. ‘I just took to drinking … same as my sister … When she come out she did a lot of drinking and fighting … and someone knocked her on the head.’ This knock on the head left her sister with a permanent disability.
Kathleen has given up drinking. ‘I reckon I just kept going and going till I kept thinking about the place, and it just hurts to talk about it now, but when I used to drink I’d just get merry … I reckon if people had spoke to me … about it, helped me through it, I might have gave it up sooner … But I don’t think you trusted anyone in them days.’
Kathleen obtained her file when she applied for compensation through a redress scheme. ‘I wanted to burn it.’ Her friend told her not to, but ‘I wanted to because I didn’t want anyone to remember it’. After she read her file, ‘I felt no good inside’. Kathleen did not reveal the sexual abuse she experienced when she applied to the redress scheme, so she only received a small amount of compensation.
Kathleen told the Commissioner, ‘It keeps coming back in my head all the time … When I had my children I said … “No way they’re going into a home or anything”. I just looked after ‘em myself’. Kathleen is now very protective of all the young people in her community and keeps urging them to speak up if they have issues with abuse.
‘I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of Aboriginal children now, you know. They won’t speak up. I think it’s about time some of the elders go around and talk to ‘em … They’re too afraid to talk to anyone … I tell ‘em, “Anything pops up, to let someone know … older” … I’ve told ‘em I’m always there for ‘em if they want to come and talk.’