In the mid-1950s, three-year-old Martine and her sisters were placed in a Catholic orphanage in country Western Australia. Martine remembered the orphanage as a terrible place.
At breakfast, the children ‘had to fish out the weevils’ in their porridge. Dinner was sheep’s head soup. There was rarely ever a meal in the middle of the day.
‘They had these great big pots full of scraps from the kitchen that used to go the chooks. We used to follow these and steal food off the chooks ‘cause we were that hungry. Rotten apples, oranges, whatever.’
Some of the children would try to pick figs from trees in the schoolyard. If they were caught the nuns would give them six of the best on the hand, then make them kneel on the gravel and look at the trees.
At night in the freezing cold orphanage, there were never enough blankets. During the day, the children never had shoes.
Martine received practically no education. ‘Grade 7, that was it if you were lucky.
‘They’d call you a numbskull and put you to work doing the laundry.
‘Felt like we were working forever.’
The children were humiliated, shamed and physically abused. ‘If you done anything wrong they locked you in a dark room with all mice and beetles crawling all over you.
‘I’ll never forget that dark room.'
‘Even when you went to church, you didn’t know what you were doing wrong. If you looked at a bloke you got hit – “stop looking at trousers”. What were we doing? You couldn’t understand why you got thumped.’
In her early teens Martine and another girl were caught trying to run away. ‘I had all my hair shaved and I had to kneel in the middle of the dormitory all night until the nuns said I could go to bed.
‘The cruelty part of it I can go on forever.’
On Sundays, the children were allowed out of the orphanage to go for walks. Several times on these walks, Martine was taken into some bushes by an older boy and sexually abused.
She later found out he’d abused other girls, too. But having received no sex education, Martine didn’t really understand what was happening. ‘I don’t think we knew what he was doing, we just didn’t like what he was doing.’
After that Martine made sure to avoid the boy by always walking with a big group of girls. ‘He caught you on your own.’
Martine never reported the sexual abuse. She remembered being too frightened of the punishment she might receive from the nuns.
Soon after, Martine finally escaped from the orphanage. ‘I ran away. I completely left the mission, left everything behind me and I found a new life.’
While she was on the run Martine met a kind Aboriginal woman who took her in and later helped her get a job. Eventually, Martine’s new employer became her legal guardian.
Martine didn’t talk about the sexual abuse for many years. There were times when she tried to drown the memories with alcohol ‘but you wake up and it’s still there on your mind’.
What happened at the orphanage has had an enduring impact on her life. Martine has struggled with flashbacks and nightmares, feelings of shame and depression. But she’s never tried to get counselling or professional help, preferring instead to use her own strength.
‘I find it in myself.’
She also became a very protective parent. ‘I thought there’s no way my kids are going to go through this. I’m going to love and protect them, the way I wasn’t.’
In the years since the orphanage Martine was reunited with her parents and caught up on her missed education. She worked hard to learn and grow, and had a career helping others.
After finally talking about the sexual abuse Martine received some compensation from the Western Australian Government, but it was of little comfort. ‘How can anyone know what you’ve been through?'
‘Having my kids and watching my grandies, that’s the best comfort.’