‘Once trust is taken from us we never really find it again, do we? Or does distrust become our normal?’
Madelyn was a bright child growing up in rural Victoria in the 1960s. She felt she was about two years ahead of her age group at school, and consequently a little bored and restless. ‘My father had great plans for me. I had great plans for me.’ She still does not understand what happened when she was about 13 years old. Her parents bundled her into the car one day and drove her across the state. She was told she was being placed in a boarding school.
‘This was no boarding school’, Madelyn told the Commissioner. ‘This was jail.’
Madelyn found herself living in an orphanage run by an order of Catholic nuns. She was there for three years and suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Madelyn occasionally wet the bed. She believes this was used as a pretence for groping by several of the nuns. The order’s Mother Superior was the worst abuser.
‘They used to come around in the middle of the night … and they would feel. And they were feeling in places that they shouldn’t have been.
‘You weren’t allowed to get up and change the sheets or change your pyjamas. You had to sleep in the wet, pissy bed … Then you were humiliated in front of everyone in the dormitory with these wet sheets over your head. It wasn’t just me, it was the other girls as well.’
Discipline was strict and beatings frequent. Madelyn described one afternoon when she broke a statue in the chapel while dusting, just as one of the Sisters walked in. Madelyn was using a cane feather duster. ‘She ripped it out of my hand, told me I was going to burn in hell and whipped the shit out of me … I had the welts, stood up, for about two weeks.’
Madelyn’s parents were often discouraged from visiting. ‘They used to constantly ring and tell Mum and Dad not to come up. Because they were beating the shit out of us, that’s why.’
The sexual abuse and loneliness prompted Madelyn to escape the home. Helped by a friend, she tied sheets together and climbed out a window one night. ‘I’m not scared of heights but there is no way I will jump out of a two-storey building. I must have been one scared little girl.’ She hitch-hiked to a town 200 kilometres away, where she was picked up by police a few days later. She was returned to the nuns.
When she was 15 years old Madelyn escaped again and fled to Melbourne. A missing persons report was filed and her parents notified. After a few days of living rough Madelyn found a lift into northern Victoria with a truck driver. The man was kind to her and took Madelyn to the centre of her home town. Madelyn returned to her parents and disclosed the abuse. She was not returned to the orphanage.
Madelyn believes her mother made a report about the nuns’ treatment of her daughter to local police at this time but no action was taken.
The abuse has had a devastating impact on Madelyn’s life.
‘I’ve managed to maintain my self-worth and confidence, but when it comes to emotional coping over my life as a child, teenager, woman and wife, as well as mother, I’ll admit I’ve struggled immensely.’
Madelyn has had difficulty maintaining friendships and relationships. ‘Trust turns into distrust, love turns into hatred, and I fear that I’m not in control of the full effects the abuse has placed in the deepest parts of my mind as I was growing up.
‘I went from one violent relationship to another. It’s all you know.’
Madelyn married as a teenager and had children. The marriage ended badly. Madelyn married again later in life and had more children, but is now estranged from nearly all of her kids.
Madelyn struggles to this day. She dislikes physical touch, self-medicates with drugs and alcohol and has bipolar disorder. She has depression, trust issues and believes that the abuse has deeply affected her parenting and her relationships with her children. She is unable to work.
‘I can only hope that out of this [Royal Commission] my children better understand me and realise I could never be the mother I intended to be. It was not my fault – I was the victim of abuse that changed me forever.’
Madelyn is hoping to turn her life around. She has a good relationship with her doctor, who has referred her to an effective drug and alcohol counsellor. Madelyn is thinking about taking her story to the Catholic Church and asking for an apology at least, and an acknowledgement that the nuns have taken so much from her life.
‘They call us survivors. I think we’re past survivors – I think we’re warriors. Unless you’ve been there you’ve got no idea.’