‘We got to Fremantle dock. Two black cars came. They took our brothers away in one car, and the other car, they took my sister and I. We arrived in an orphanage, a very, very dark place. They shaved our hair off, took all our jewellery.’
Maria was eight and her sister four when they arrived in the 1960s at a Western Australian orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. As Europe was adapting to changes wrought by World War II, Maria’s father was grieving from the sudden death of his wife. A Catholic priest told him that his children would have a better life in Australia. He arranged transport for them to travel alone.
‘We just didn’t understand what was going on’, Maria said. ‘But just before we actually got on the boat … my dad was really fighting the priest. But we had to go, and basically that’s how it all started.’
Speaking no English, Maria was put to work as a domestic hand as well as carer for the younger children in the orphanage while her sister was fostered out to live with a local family.
From the ages of eight to 12, Maria was sexually abused by the priest who lived in a unit on orphanage grounds. ‘I don’t know why I got picked but I was one of the girls that had to go and clean the priest’s unit’, she said. ‘So I used to clean his unit and then after I finished I had to sit on his lap, and he used to play with my breasts – and then I used to get like, biscuits. Biscuits was a big deal. We didn’t have that much stuff.’
Maria told the Commissioner that she was very religious as a child because ‘that’s all we learnt’. The priest made her go to confession and pray to God for forgiveness for her sins in making him do what he did. If she ever resisted his abuse, he’d refuse her communion the next time she went to mass.
In holiday periods, Maria generally stayed in the orphanage because she had nowhere to go. On occasional weekends she’d be invited into the home of a couple, Mr and Mrs Fitzhenry. She said while she was in their house, all she did was domestic chores. Whenever Fitzhenry came to pick up Maria, he’d play with her breasts in the car. ‘I guess I was starting to develop quite early in life’, Maria said. ‘I had actually quite big breasts for a child, so maybe, you know, that was like a focus.
'The sad part about it is that I’ve never been a child. I just don’t know what it is to be a child.’
There was no screening of people who came to the orphanage offering to take children out, and Maria recalled being taken several times by ‘a dirty old man’ to his house. ‘He used to finger me a lot at his place. He didn’t live that far away from the orphanage. And then, like when everything was all finished, he would have big brown paper bags of food, and he’d give it to the nuns. And that just went on and on.’
Maria never received English lessons at the orphanage. In fact, the nuns mocked and punished her for her inability to read and write. Still, Maria tried to explain to the nuns that she was being sexually abused. One time she told the nuns about bleeding ‘down there’. They mistook this for her having her period, gave her some pads and sent her away.
In later years at the orphanage, Maria tried to make up for her lost education. If the nuns ever saw her reading, they’d give her a belting and make her get back to work, so whenever she got hold of a book, she would memorise the text ‘like a parrot’.
At 16, she left the orphanage and went to live in a house where she again found herself working as ‘a servant’. The couple with whom she lived were paid an allowance for having Maria and they would get her to accompany them on trips as nanny to their children.
On one of the trips, Maria left them. She soon met up with a man who suggested they go interstate. On the train trip east he sexually assaulted her. She escaped and found herself without food, money or accommodation in a city she didn’t know. A chance meeting with another man led to work, first in his business and then as a carer to people with health problems and disabilities.
At 17, Maria got married because she ‘didn’t know any different’. She had children and didn’t ever tell her husband or anyone else about the sexual abuse in the orphanage.
‘I think it was all like really blank’, she said. ‘It was like a survival thing, I think. You know, push it all back … And then I left him. I think we were together for, I don’t know, 17 years.’
Maria told the Commissioner that she had a troubled relationship with several of her children, and little or no contact now with her siblings. Her brothers and sisters had problems of their own, she said, from mental health issues to drug dependency and illiteracy. Her great regret was losing her culture and contact with her father. A return trip to Europe organised by the British government hadn’t gone as well as she’d hoped because she’d forgotten the language of her birthplace – and the trip took place after her father's death.
In the 2000s, Maria participated in the Western Australia redress scheme and received the maximum payout of $45,000. She thought that the process gave others ‘some sort of understanding of what happened’, and the money helped because she could buy a car to get to work. The apology ‘was meaningless really’. She also received $5,000 from the Sisters of Mercy, who she believed ‘wanted to get rid’ of anything to do with what had happened in the orphanage.
Maria said she was still haunted by visions of the orphanage – frightening flashbacks of the church and memories of lining up to kiss dead nuns as they lay in their coffins. ‘You don’t realise how scary this place was’, she said. ‘Stations of the Cross, that was scary because every time you moved, Jesus’s eyes was following you, right? And even Mary’s eyes was following you. It was really scary. That’s why I won’t go to a Catholic church now. That freaks me out.’
Now 60, Maria said she wished she could access her superannuation to make life a bit easier. ‘I’ve got two jobs and I would love to give up one job because I haven’t got time for me’, she said.
‘I want to learn, I want to play, be a bit of a kid. I can’t do that working 13 hours a day. I’ve struggled, you know. I’ve bought a house, I’ve still got a little bit of mortgage … I wish that really the government could say to me, “What would you like?”. You know what I would say to them? “Let me have $40,000 out of my super so I can pay my house off, so that I can quit one of my jobs, so that I can have the rest of my aged life a little bit more easy”. That’s what I would want.’