Paulina was raised in a staunchly Catholic family, living in a suburb of Melbourne during the 1930s. She said her mother ‘trapped’ her father into marriage because she had children from a previous relationship. Paulina also described her mother as a ‘monster’ who often physically abused her and sometimes locked her out of the house. Her father was a war veteran who was often ill. Paulina was kept away from her father and believed he didn’t love her.
Paulina’s mother was actively involved with the parish affairs. She recalls her mother doing laundry for the priests regularly and being in close contact with them. In the mid-1930s, Paulina and her siblings were sent to the local Catholic primary school. Here, Paulina was often brutally chastised.
‘The nuns used to love to beat us. I’ve still got broken bones in the back of my hands.’
Paulina recalls that when she was in Grade 3, the nuns asked all students to bring a bucket and scrubbing brush to school. They wanted the children to clean the floors before school broke up for the summer. Paulina was sent to school without both items and received lashes on her back as punishment.
Paulina was sent home, crying, and then was beaten by her mother before returning to school without the brush or bucket again. Paulina was then beaten once more and returned home. After that, her mother enrolled Paulina and her siblings in a state school. Paulina escaped the nuns but not the Church.
When Paulina was seven, her mother was approached by one of the parish priests. He expressed concern that Paulina was no longer receiving religious education and offered private tuition every Saturday. Paulina’s mother agreed and would drop Paulina off at the presbytery.
For four years, Paulina was sexually abused at least once a week by this priest. (To this day, she can’t recall his name.) Sometimes, the priest would tutor her in the family home and he would abuse her there. Paulina was forced to perform oral sex on the priest and he molested her.
She never told anyone about the abuse but began acting up in class and at home. She would return from tuition sessions ‘screaming and crying’ which upset her mother. Paulina was simply sent to her bedroom if she acted up. With the benefit of hindsight, she believes her mother knew of the abuse but kept silent because of her own ‘dubious past’.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s, when she was 11, that the abuse ceased. The priest kept his distance after Paulina vomited following forced oral sex.
‘I threw up in his lap and he was so angry with me. That was the end of it.’
After the abuse ceased, the nuns and the priest ‘vanished overnight’. Paulina recalls going to church one Sunday to find a new priest and nuns at the parish. She never saw the perpetrator again.
In the mid-1940s when she was 14, Paulina’s mother kicked her out of the family home. She said it wasn’t the first time her mother pushed for her to leave. For a small period, Paulina had no place to stay and very little money. She eventually found work and a place to live. In her 20s, she married and had children but her husband was violent. After a decade Paulina took her children and left him.
Throughout her adult life, Paulina has struggled with depression. She has a deep distrust and fear of men. She says she has ‘missed out’ on major opportunities, including a career, because of the abuse. She has to ‘fight’ to act normally every day.
Paulina is estranged from one of her children and fears she has influenced her children’s own strained relationships with men. Paulina left the Catholic Church when she left the family home but can't bury the memory of abuse.
‘It’s the black bear on my shoulders and has been for nearly 80 years. It has stopped me from doing things I should do, it’s ruined my family, it’s ruined my life. It’s something very hard to live with.’
Paulina first disclosed the abuse to the 2014 Victorian inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations. She decided to speak out after such a long time because she was saddened to see other victims and their disclosures of abuse being ‘swept under the rug’ by the Catholic Church.
‘I just hate the thought of all those other people going through what I went through. I hate the thought that in future more might have to go through it.’
Paulina received a small compensation payment and got a letter of apology from a Catholic priest. She tore it up because she felt it was insincere. Paulina has no interest in counselling or taking further action against the Catholic Church.
‘It just shouldn’t have happened.’