Forced to raise a family on her own, Noni’s mother struggled to look after her kids. Eventually things became too much for her and so, in the mid-1950s, three-year-old Noni and her little brother were sent for a temporary stay at a Catholic children’s home in a nearby Queensland town.
The home was a loveless place where Noni and her brother were cruelly treated by the nuns. One time Noni was beaten so badly she couldn’t breathe and thought she was going to die. Fearing that her brother would suffer similar treatment, she tried to protect him.
‘I’d try to creep up the stairs to go into the room where my baby brother was, to get in the cot with him. And I’d climb in, and I’d be caught in there and picked up out of the cot and smacked and put back on the steps.’
When Noni was four years old she went with the other children on an excursion to the beach. An older boy took her for a piggyback ride and in the process slipped his hand up her pants. Noni knew this was wrong and so she kept wriggling and shifting around until eventually the boy let her go.
Noni can’t remember for sure if the boy tried to abuse her again but she suspects that he did. ‘If someone’s determined to do that to you I don’t think they let you go once, do they?’
All up, Noni suffered through four or five short stays at the home before she and her brother went back to live permanently with their mum. But even there Noni wasn’t safe from sexual abuse. When she was about 11 or 12 years old she was preyed on by the local Catholic priest.
The priest would take Noni for drives and grope her while she sat beside him. At night he would sneak up to Noni’s house and slip his arm through the window into the verandah where she slept.
‘I’d wake up at night and feel this hand coming through the window, feeling all over my body. And it’d wake me up. It happened a couple of times, I couldn’t tell you how many … but I refused to sleep there anymore and I run through and told her [Mum] and so she started to sleep out there and let me sleep in her double bed.
‘So she’d sleep out there and the same thing happened to her. She grabbed the arm that was rubbing all over her body. She said she wouldn’t let him go and she said, “I could smell the whisky on his breath” … But he never come back after that and she believed me so we both slept in her double bed.’
On another occasion Noni was in the bath with her cousin when the priest tried to break in.
‘We had the door locked and then the door was “bang, bang, bang” and you could feel the shoulder pushing on the door trying to break the lock and we’re in there screaming and this voice is going, “Let me in, let me in”. We’re going “No!”’
Noni and her cousin screamed out the window for help from a friend who was doing work in the yard. He came running to the house and the priest bolted. If the friend hadn’t been there that day, Noni said, ‘imagine what would have happened to us’.
Noni kept the abuse to herself for the next 30 years, never mentioning it to anyone until the late 1990s when she participated in a Queensland government inquiry into child sexual abuse. Even then Noni refused to give any of the details of what she’d suffered. As a result she received only a very small redress payment from the state government and no ongoing support.
‘There was no contact with anybody after it. I thought I’d been forgotten. I thought why did I bother doing it? I brought out all these memories of myself and now I’m left with the punishment.’
As time went by more and more memories of the abuse started coming back to Noni. She had terrible nightmares. Still she kept the abuse to herself, projecting an image of strength while on the inside she was crumbling.
‘I believe I’ve got a very damaged “Inside Noni” but a very confident “Outside Noni” – because I don’t want to be a wallflower and on pills for the rest of my life. I want to be able to stand up and speak up for myself.’
Despite her determination to handle things on her own, bad memories eventually became too much for Noni and for the first time in her life she decided to talk to someone. She found a good counsellor whom she’s been seeing regularly ever since.
‘I feel I need this help. You can only fight a battle on your own for so long. I think I need to call in the rest of the army. I can’t be the leader all the time.’