‘I was beside myself with fear. I think, upon reflection, it was because I had been to the children’s protection society and the government who were intimidated by the Christian Brothers. So if they were intimidated, how is a child or am I going to feel?’
It was a dream for Louisa to work in an orphanage as she loved children and wanted to help those in need. She had no experience in the area, however, so when her friend’s brother, a Christian Brother, offered her a position in a Christian Brothers orphanage in Melbourne she was delighted.
It was the 1980s and Louisa was in her mid-20s. She worked long hours in the dormitories morning and evening, often with no break. And as soon as she started her job, she had concerns about the institution.
‘Brother Lewisham was in charge and would come and say goodnight to the boys in their little rooms. Always his hand would go under the doona. At first I thought I was being [paranoid] but as time progressed I saw his hand moving. I felt that he was stroking the boys.’
Louisa called the government authority and was referred to the head of the Children’s Protection Society (CPS). She told them what she had seen but instead of intervening, they asked her to stay working there and gather further information. Louisa believes they were already aware of the abuse occurring but needed independent evidence to form a case against the Christian Brothers. She agreed to stay.
Things didn’t improve. A young boy sat on the steps of the home every Wednesday evening waiting for his parents to pick him up. He told Louisa that Lewisham had said to him that his parents were coming, and when they didn’t, he’d comfort the boy in his office. Louisa is sure the boy was being sexually abused.
‘I knew it was wrong and I knew it wouldn’t happen on my watch if I could stop it. But I don’t think I knew it was a crime.’
One day a boy returned to his bed after having a shower, and Louisa saw large welts all over his body. She learned that he’d been physically punished after refusing to shower with one of the Brothers.
Louisa heard also that Brother Grenard was giving the boys treats for sexual favours. She told a treating doctor what was happening because she feared for the children’s safety and welfare. The boys underwent medical checks but nothing further happened.
Louisa also spoke to other women who worked at the orphanage, and expressed her concerns about the Brothers’ treatment of children. She recalled they told her not say anything because they were worried about losing their jobs. Instead, they said, Louisa should ‘just give the kids a hug’ if they were hurt.
After some time, it became apparent to Lewisham that Louisa had made her report to the CPS. She was asked to go to his office and discuss her concerns, something she found intimidating. Lewisham asked her to resign. She refused, saying that she cared for the children’s wellbeing too much to leave and that he’d have to fire her.
Several months later Louisa was fired. She went on to work in a different institution, and was relieved to hear when the orphanage closed.
‘I got a phone call, I can’t remember how many months later, to say that the doors were closed. [The evidence I gave] it was enough … The boys were going to be in better care.’
Louisa wanted the Royal Commission and others to know that the abuse she witnessed in the orphanage was only a little of what the children experienced in their daily lives. She believed that people in authority were scared of the Catholic Church, and this concerned her even more.
‘I wanted to give you a picture of what it was like. It wasn’t necessarily just people saying, “We can’t do anything”, that it was scary and frightening. [The Christian Brothers] were bigger than Texas and they were a force that the average person would find it very difficult to deal with.’