‘Why I’m here – or why I put my name down to come forward – is because I want to see change. I don’t think it’s happening quick enough, and I think there’s a lot of people out there just getting the bucks and not doing the work. I feel that some of the people that have walked the walk should be involved on boards and in making decisions. They probably need the training for it, but I think they need to get people that have actually experienced what we've been through.’
As a child in Queensland, Merle was taken from her grandmother and made a ward of state. She was placed in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy, arriving in the mid 1950s, with her four siblings following soon after. After a brief stay, the children returned home; however, in 1960 the orphanage placement became permanent.
‘I had a wonderful childhood – up until the age of seven’, Merle said. ‘But going into the orphanage, I was lost. I had no family. None of us knew family, nothing.’
At the age of eight, Merle found out that her father had died. She went to the priest, Father Bernard Gleeson, for comfort. In the short time she was alone with him, Merle was sexually abused; the priest stopped only when another person walked into the room. In subsequent years, Merle said Gleeson was ‘always putting his hand up your blouse, and feeling your breasts and things like that’.
Merle disclosed the abuse to another girl and it got back to the nuns, who strapped Merle for ‘dirty thoughts’ and ‘talking filth’. She said it wasn’t uncommon for nuns to beat and humiliate the children.
At 13, she’d once wet the bed and had been made to wear a nappy in front of the whole dormitory. Another time she’d been locked in a room without water in 40-degree heat, and had had to drink her own urine.
In the early 1970s, Merle told a doctor that Gleeson had abused her. The doctor offered to report it to police, but Merle was afraid of what might happen and asked him not to.
The following year, she reported it to Queensland police herself, but she said they weren’t interested. In the late 2000s, she again made a statement to police, and a detective – who was ‘a lovely fellow’ – investigated. He contacted another girl Merle had told him about who’d had a baby to Gleeson, but before the matter could proceed, Gleeson died.
In the late 1990s, Merle had been one of the scores of ex-residents who took civil action against the Queensland government and the Sisters of Mercy for the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they’d been subjected to in the orphanage. Merle received $5,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
The impact of the sexual abuse and of being removed from her family had been huge, Merle said. ‘In the orphanage we were not allowed to mix with family, so family was taken away from us. My brothers and sisters are like strangers to me because I never grew up in a family. I don’t know what family is, which is a sad thing.’
She felt keenly the loss of her Aboriginal identity and had strived in the years after leaving the orphanage to re-connect with her culture, working in areas in which traditional laws and spiritual practices still thrived. And as an adult, she has completed two university degrees to ‘prove to people that I was not stupid’.
‘I kept on studying all my life, and paid for it myself’, Merle said. ‘When I got out of the orphanage, they gave me $8 and kissed my butt bye-bye sort of thing. So I missed out on a lot of opportunities. I’m 61 now and I feel as though I’m like 20, like I haven’t had a childhood. I haven’t grown.
'I’ve married three times – third time lucky, I’ve got a good one now.’
Merle also spoke at Queensland's Forde Inquiry, and found it liberating to know she wasn’t alone. ‘It was like a whole weight had been lifted off our shoulders and we could talk about it’, she said. ‘We all experienced the same things, because we never, ever spoke about it in the home – once when I did say something, I was told I was lying.
‘You know what the thing is? It’s always with you, no matter what happens … You wake up in the morning, it’s always with you, it never leaves you. So if any good can come out of it, I’m here. It’s got to make a difference.’