‘I can deal with anything in life except anything Catholic, or church … I can’t walk into a church.’
In the 1970s, when Narelle was in her early teens, her father didn’t approve of her boyfriend. One of his friends suggested that sending her to a Catholic home might be a good solution.
Her mum and dad went to look at the place he recommended in Tasmania. ‘And they saw the pretty things that the Catholics have, you know? The beautiful black and white marble tiles. It looks good.’
Narelle’s father also believed that Catholics were the best educators. So in she went.
‘That eight months in there wrecked my life. I walked into something that was a fire storm, with no protection.’
Narelle was shunned by the other girls at first. She realised she had to shed her well-spoken, middle class persona and toughen up. After a while she became immune and stopped speaking up when she saw girls being hurt.
‘I didn’t think I was going to get out of there alive … The cruelty of those nuns and the housemothers … Everyone was cruel to you.’
The home was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
‘Everyone thinks of nuns as all holy and stuff. The nuns were rough as guts.’
The Sisters insulted the girls constantly. Narelle was called dirty, disgusting and a ‘guttersnipe’. But two nuns were kind to Narelle and she remembers them very clearly.
The girls were forbidden to speak to each other except on Sundays and so communicated in whispers. At night they were locked in their dormitories, which were unheated and had barred windows. ‘God help us if a fire had broken out. There were no fire alarms.’
They were belted regularly and forced to work in the laundry before and after school. It was a large commercial laundry and about 20 men worked alongside the girls, doing the heavy lifting.
Narelle can’t understand why she was made to work there when her father was paying money to the nuns every week.
One day in the laundry Narelle saw a girl deliberately burn her own hand. She was scolded for being careless but was allowed to stop work. Then some of the girls offered to burn Narelle’s hand for her. She realised they were trying to save her from what was coming.
‘I got raped in the laundry. It was within three minutes. I just got dragged behind two huge machines.’ One man held her while another man raped her. ‘It was very quick … And then I just … pulled my clothes back on and I went back and kept working.’
The night after the rape Narelle cut her wrists in the bath. It wasn’t a plea for attention. ‘I was deadset going for it.’ She was pulled out and wrapped in a blanket. The nuns yelled, ‘How ungrateful you are. Look at what we’re doing for you. Look at what we’re giving you’.
Before she went to the home, Narelle’s school reports described her as a ‘pleasant, well-mannered student’. By the time she left she was out of control, much to the distress of her parents. They sent her to another school but it was too late. ‘I was too damaged by the time I got there.’ A year later she was on the streets of Sydney, addicted to heroin.
Narelle has struggled with drug addiction and also served time in prison. She didn’t tell anyone about the Catholic home until she rang the Commission. ‘I heard it on the radio. And I thought “I’m one of them”.’
She found very good support at the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN). ‘They saved my life actually.’ She then reported her sexual abuse to the Catholic Church’s organisation Towards Healing. ‘Towards Healing has not been a pleasant process to go through. It is fraudulent.’
Their assessment report described the physical abuse Narelle suffered, such as being thrown against a wall and having her head held under the water, as ‘minor’. Narelle’s allegations of sexual abuse were not substantiated by the assessors. The report states that the rape does not fall within the Towards Healing definition of abuse, since the alleged offenders were not providing ‘pastoral care’ to Narelle.
Narelle has been depressed ever since she read the assessment. She believes Towards Healing based their entire report on one nun’s evidence, a woman that Narelle never spoke to.
Narelle has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is seeing a good psychologist. ‘I’ve had a lot of support along the way … I’m not against Catholics. I am against Towards Healing taking money.’
Some of the girls died while they were at the home and Narelle is upset because they were buried with a lack of respect.
‘Why couldn’t they give them the decency of one grave? That haunts me. Why would they throw them two in a grave?’