In the mid-1960s, Natalie and her younger sister Sally were placed into a Melbourne convent run as a girls’ home by an order of Catholic nuns. Their father had been sent to prison. ‘My mum explained to us that we were going there when she was in a financial situation and she would bring us home’, Natalie said. She was about six years old.
‘It was a dark place and it was very big and it was very cold … one blanket and so forth.’
Natalie quickly learned to fear the nuns, especially the Mother Superior, who meted out corporal punishment to the girls with a staff or strap. Both girls suffered neglect as well as physical and emotional abuse.
‘Every time Mum would come and see us … she’d say “Take care of your sister”. We tried.’
Sally, barely more than a toddler, was often beaten for wetting the bed or wetting her pants. ‘When we were in church she wet her pants again and they take her out … and I had to hear her screaming.’ Natalie would always run to help her sister but then get into trouble with the nuns herself.
‘I cannot stand the name “Mother Superior” … because she gave out the discipline. And she said, “God disciplines those he loves”. How can you only discipline me by whacking me all the time, telling me I’m wicked, telling me that I’m going to purgatory, telling that I’m nothing, just constantly separating me and isolating me because I would stick up for my sister?’
Life in the convent was brutal and regimented. ‘When we’d get washed we had a certain amount of time to wash ourselves … If you didn’t do it in that time they would come in and do it for you … a face washer with soap and you’d be there with your legs apart and they’d rub the soap and rub in and out to clean you.’
Even when the girls were on the toilet the nuns would intrude. ‘Slam the door open, seven Hail Marys, four Our Fathers, that Stations of the Cross thing. I didn’t have a clue. It was like the military.’
Natalie and her sister were moved to an orphanage in central Victoria when the convent closed in the early 70s. The girls stayed there for a year or two before being released to their mother. She had found work and bought a house. Natalie was just old enough to begin high school.
Natalie tried to tell her mother what had been happening to them in the care of the nuns. ‘She says, “You know if you bring that stuff up they will medicate you. The doctors, they don’t believe you. Police don’t believe you”.’
Natalie tried to move on and put her traumatic early years behind her. ‘I thought, “I’m going to do something with my life. I’m going to try. I’m going to get in with the right crowd, I’m going to meet someone nice”.’
Natalie did manage a successful marriage and has had children of her own. The impacts of the abuse have been felt throughout her life, however. She has suffered from low self-esteem and intimacy issues. ‘Even in the shower – we’ve been married 21 years now – I think I might have let him come and have a shower with me once or twice and then he has to get out, because it just triggered stuff. I’d say, “Leave the bathroom”.’
Natalie has difficulty with people in authority, too. ‘I see manipulation and control and I know what it looks like.’ Her faith has also changed over the years. ‘I was angry with God. My husband has a faith. I have a faith but it’s not like his. I think there’s a lot of manipulation and coercion in churches.’
Her sister Sally has also had a difficult life after the years of neglect. Natalie believes Sally blames her for not protecting her from the nuns. She is now trying to rebuild their relationship.
A few years ago one of Natalie’s children was assaulted. ‘That opened up a can of worms for me. I was just livid.’ Flashbacks and nightmares started haunting her. Natalie found a psychologist and disclosed her story at last. She is now receiving treatment.