Nicky Rose's story

Nicky has no memory of family life. Her mother departed in the late 1950s, soon after Nicky turned two, and her father ('He was an alcoholic') couldn't cope. Two elder brothers, already in work, stayed home, but Nicky and four siblings were made state wards and sent to a Catholic orphanage in regional Victoria.

Her younger sister Suzy was a cute baby: 'She was the spoilt one and I was always supposed to be the jealous, naughty child', Nicky recalls. 'I was always on the outer, I was known as the Devil's child.

'I was often in isolation, they would keep me away from the other children … The nuns were very, very cruel.'

The Mother Superior was particularly vicious. 'You'd have to stand in front of her naked and she would beat the living hell out of you. Then she'd make you stand and stand for hours, with your hands on your head … She used to sit at her desk and just stare at you.

'You're a little girl, your hands would get tired after a while; but you put them down and she would flog you again.

'The way they spoke, I didn't understand – that you were impure, had thoughts that you didn't know what they were talking about. Even as you got older, they would make you pull your clothes off in front of all the children to check that you had clean underwear. It was just very degrading.'

To this day, Nicky finds it very difficult to undress for medical procedures: 'I'm very shy with other people'.

Another, more terrifying regular punishment was being locked outside the building at night. There was a prowler, the grown son of a neighbouring family, who used to wander naked around the grounds in the dark; Nicky was scared he would attack her.

Relief from the perils of the orphanage appeared to come when Nicky was allowed to go on holiday stays with caring families. 'It was mainly Christmas, sometimes Easter', Nicky recalls. 'They would come and pick the children they wanted.'

Nicky felt fortunate to be selected by the Williams family, who treated her well. Across the road from the Williams lived the O'Donalds; Nicky got on well with the O'Donald children, so sometimes there would be sleepovers there.

Which is when the seven-year-old was abused by Mr O'Donald. 'He waited until his children were asleep', she wrote in a statement to the Royal Commission. 'I woke up and Mr O'Donald had his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. He had me pinned down so I couldn't move.

'He reached under my nightie and pulled my pants down … I recall being in a lot of pain as he tried to force his penis inside me … The same thing happened on the next visits … I think he raped me about five times.'

After the last incident, Nicky disclosed the abuse to Mr Williams, telling him that O'Donald was hurting her ‘down there' and pointing to her genitals. Williams confronted O'Donald angrily, then reported the abuse to the nuns.

However, the nuns refused to believe the disclosure and told Williams that Nicky was a liar. 'Then I got another flogging and was put into isolation.'

Years later, Nicky accessed her state ward file: 'It said that I was too uncontrollable, “We have to get rid of this child, can no longer keep her here” … First they tried me out with my mum, hoping I could go and live with her. But with the partner she had at the time they were just drinkers and fighting. When I went back to the orphanage, I told them that I never wanted to go back there because of the fighting and screaming.'

At age 14, Nicky was suddenly moved in the middle of the night to another Victorian convent. Her two older sisters had already left the orphanage and her brother had been transferred to a Catholic boys' home. She spent two years working in the laundry – 'I kept to myself a lot, and was scared' – then was rescued by her oldest brother, Toby, and went to live in Melbourne.

The nuns often told Nicky that she was bad 'and would end up in prison by the time I was 16'. When she started adult life in Melbourne, 'I was petrified that I would do something wrong and end up in jail, proving the nuns right'.

Instead, she forced herself to become more assured, and began a successful career in the hospitality industry. 'On the outside I've become confident and outspoken … But not on the inside.

'I don't trust people, I don't let many get close to me … And I don't tell people that I was in an orphanage.'

When one of her sisters made a claim against the orphanage for ill treatment, Nicky's position was also evaluated. 'The nuns came to see me with a solicitor. They came to say sorry … they gave me $3,000 compensation. I had to sign a thing saying I would never talk about it again.

'No money would take away that childhood, so it's not about the money. But I believe the nuns have got a lot to answer for, and so does the government, because they knew what was going on in the orphanages.'

She wasn't impressed by the apology: 'It felt false, they felt very cold'.

'They didn't believe what I was telling them, so I said, "You tell me how many children all over the world say the same story, over and over, that didn't know each other? How could they all be lying?"'

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