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Klara's story

‘I don’t say it’s turned me against God, but it’s turned me against the Church.’

Klara was born in the late 1940s, into a large family living in a country town in New South Wales. After her mother died when Klara was two years old, the children lived briefly with their grandparents before moving in with their father and stepmother.

Klara’s father was an alcoholic and her stepmother was violent. Physical abuse was such that Klara used to be beaten by her stepmother and told that she was ‘too much like’ her birth mother. She once had her leg broken by her stepmother who threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the beatings.

Klara and her siblings visited their stepmother’s father numerous times. She recalled that she’d just turned 11 when her step-grandfather sexually abused her. The abuse happened on several occasions and when Klara told her stepmother, she was told he ‘wouldn’t do that’. Unable to take any more abuse, Klara started to run away from the family home.

In the early 1960s when she was 13, Klara was brought before the courts as an ‘uncontrollable child’ and sent to a Catholic girls’ home in a suburb of Sydney. For the first six weeks she spent in the home, Klara was ‘locked in a cell’ and wasn’t allowed to shower. She recalled being given only rags to use when she had her period, and being fed only bread and water when she was in the cell.

After the ‘initiation’ period, Klara was released into the main section of the home. The Sisters forced her to scrub the floors of the home with a toothbrush and if she didn’t do it correctly, she was made to kneel naked during prayer time. Klara said it wasn’t long before she was sexually abused by Sister Eugenia.

‘She used to make me go into her room, take all my clothes off. Then she would get a wooden hairbrush and insert it into my vagina. So many times she made me do that.’

The home did sheet and towel washing for local hotels. On Eugenia’s orders, Klara was made to work in the laundry 12 hours a day, six days a week. The Sisters frequently hit her across the knuckles with sticks or rulers for not ‘being careful enough’. On one occasion, Klara’s knuckles were split open, which caused her ‘a lot of pain’.

Klara stayed at the home for two years. She didn’t go to school while living there and was visited only twice by her father and stepmother before she was discharged at the age of 15. She then ‘hitch-hiked’ to Sydney, got a job at a factory and changed her name. When she was 16, she met and married her first husband.

Klara became estranged from her family. She told the Commissioner that she saw her father once when she was 21 and had her two children with her. After that, she kept her children away because she didn’t want her stepmother to be involved in their lives.

In her mid-30s, Klara ‘adopted out’ the youngest of her children. The breakdown of her first marriage was traumatic and she couldn’t care for them. She then moved to another state to work and met her second husband. She said her second husband was ‘controlling’ and ‘possessive’ and got angry about her children visiting. Klara then left him and moved across the state. She has since reconnected with her younger children, who are ‘beautiful’ people.

Throughout her adulthood, Klara has experienced periods of depression, which is now managed with medication. In the past she has attempted to take her own life. She has difficulty trusting others and ‘can’t bear’ being in dark places. She sleeps with the light and radio on and avoids crowds because body odour is a significant trigger. She continues to have nightmares and trouble sleeping.

Klara first told a counsellor the details of the abuse in the early 2000s. She explained that she had come across a work colleague who had taken her own life and the effects of this had been significant. Klara never reported the nuns or her step-grandfather to police as it was ‘too much’ for her to handle.

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