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Philomena's story

Philomena grew up in rural New South Wales, spending most of her early years with her grandmother. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father worked away from home to support the family. At 11 Philomena was placed in an Anglican girls’ home and remained there for about 18 months.

‘The deprivation that I experienced because of the way [the home] was run … as well as the ways in which I was abused … ruined my teenage years and all of my adult life.’

The two women who ran the home dressed in nuns’ habits and were called ‘Sister’. During mediation with the Church in the mid-2000s, Philomena was told that rather than having undergone the seven years’ training to become nuns, these women had merely attended Bible college for two years. They also had no training in how to look after children. ‘Any paedophile could have gone to Bible study and then all those children, “Let’s find one that’s gunna” which was me.’ Philomena never observed any other girls at the home abused as she was.

Sister Cochrane, ‘targeted me and subjected me to appalling cruelty’. She was ‘violent and vile and cruel’. Philomena told the Commissioner that she suffered four broken arms from being shoved against a wall, down the stairs, and once, through a glass door. Because there were so few staff members at the home, the girls were ‘engaged in forced, child labour’ and only when it became impossible for a girl to work would she would be taken to the doctor.

With her fourth broken arm, Philomena received no medical attention for 10 days and her arm turned black. When she was taken to the hospital Philomena recalls talk of possible amputation of her hand, and the doctor ‘reacting angrily about my being in a state of neglect’. Philomena was worried that his reaction would lead to her being punished severely when she returned to the home. She thinks that someone at the hospital called her father, ‘and he must have felt bad about it, and got us out’. It was after this incident that Philomena left the home.

Philomena was regularly struck across the face by Sister Cochrane and now suffers from jaw damage and hearing loss on one side. She was never allowed to shower alone. The shower stalls had no curtains, and Sister Cochrane would always be there, watching. Philomena told the Commissioner that Sister Cochrane sexually abused her, and ‘I still experience major anxiety whenever I am in a bathroom’.

As punishment for any supposed misbehaviour, Philomena was made to stand on a box under the clothes line, sometimes for hours, with her hair tied to the wire. One time, when she was so distressed that she left the home and tried to walk to her grandmother’s house, she was brought back, and for three weeks, ‘every day during daylight hours I was locked in a single toilet near the dining room’.

Philomena told the Commissioner that as an adult she found out that Sister Cochrane had undergone a psychiatric assessment in the late 1950s (after Philomena had left the home), which concluded she was unsuitable to look after children. She was then moved to another home, where she was placed in charge of more children.

Philomena suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, major depression and a major anxiety disorder. She cannot be in a room without a radio or television on. There was so much silence in the home that this can act as a trigger for unwanted memories. ‘Can’t just have the nothingness that was there, because you think that someone might come and hurt you.’

‘It was drummed into me that I was worthless and I still think I’m worthless.’ Philomena told the Commissioner, ‘When people say to you, “Oh, but you’re so wonderful. You’re happy and bright and you do all … these things … I think, “No, I’m not. I’m a shitty mess”’.

Some of Philomena’s friends seem to think that because the abuse happened so long ago, she should just forget about it and get on with her life. Her best friend, who attended a Catholic school and is well aware of the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in those institutions, told Philomena that she thinks the Royal Commission is a waste of money and said, ‘Why don’t you guys build a bridge and get over it’?

When Philomena tried to speak to a high-ranking member of the Church about her abuse, his secretary told her, ‘He’s far too important to speak to you’. She threatened to stand outside the church the next Sunday with a sandwich board saying, ‘Abused by Church of England nuns’ on the front and ‘[Church representative] too important to speak to me’ on the back. The Church’s barrister phoned her within an hour.

After mediation, Philomena received a compensation payment and an apology from the Church, but the apology just felt like ‘they’re giving lip service to it. It doesn’t really mean anything’.

Philomena was encouraged to come to the Royal Commission from media reports. She also met women from other girls’ homes who told tales of abuse by Sister Cochrane.

‘I don’t feel like, before all this happened, I didn’t know anyone that had been through it … like it’s a figment of your imagination or it was a really bad dream’ and it’s a relief to her that people now ‘acknowledge that these things were done’.

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