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Prue Sarah's story

‘When you’re in a home you don’t even know what day it is. I didn’t know my last name, I didn’t know that the girl I was playing with was my sister ... I can’t give you years because I don’t know them ... No one can understand what it is like to live in abject fear for many, many years.’

According to the Catholic order of nuns who ran the Brisbane children’s home Prue lived in, she was a ‘particularly wicked’ young girl. Prue suspects they felt this way because she is ‘part Aboriginal’. She was punished frequently and harshly, being made to stand with her hands outstretched for hours or having to polish the shoes of every child, and beaten on a daily basis. Her hair was washed in a dirty bucket of water used by countless other children, and her nails scrubbed so hard that she bled.

While still in primary school Prue had to help out in the nursing home the Sisters ran for retired nuns and priests, washing and feeding the patients and sitting vigil with the dying and deceased. She lived ‘in terror’ at the home, and received little education outside of theology. There was a period where she went to school outside the home but she struggled because of her lack of basic education, and was teased by the other kids for being an orphan.

In the mid-1960s, when Prue was six, a couple took her from the orphanage to their home. The man physically and sexually abused her during her stay, putting out cigarettes on her body and digitally penetrating her. Although the burns were still visible when she returned to the home she was not asked about them. She was too scared to mention the abuse in case she got into trouble.

For a few years Prue was sent away for the long summer holidays with Mr and Mrs Blackett, who lived in an upmarket suburb and had a large family of their own. When she was around 10, the Blacketts’ teenage son Dean started sexually abusing her – ‘even though he wasn’t so terribly much older than me, it is still not right’, she said.

‘He groomed me. He was always watching me ... he’d pull you into cupboards and kiss you and feel you up, he was always trying to do things to me ... What I thought was him maybe in love with me, going to marry me, was really – I was just being groomed by him so he could do whatever he liked to me.’

Prue also witnessed Dean making his younger sister perform oral sex, but did not understand what she was witnessing. By the time she was 12 Dean was raping her. ‘I was just a kid. I didn’t really know it was wrong ... Because I had no sexual education you know, the nuns don’t talk about your body, much less anything else.’

The Blacketts caught Prue in Dean’s bed and were very angry with them both. She was sent back to the home and never stayed with the family again. Later on she learned that they had wanted to foster her before this incident.

Prue had her first psychotic episode in her early teens and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She ‘has no doubt’ that her mental illness was caused by the multiple forms of abuse she experienced.

Eventually Prue was thrown out of the home, being put in a taxi to make her own way to her father’s place. ‘I just didn’t know about the world ... so I got into every bit of trouble you could ever have possibly imagined, including getting more sexual abuse down the track ‘cause I didn’t know how to stop it.’

She became pregnant at 17 and was encouraged to give up the baby for adoption. Not being able to ever locate her child again remains greatly distressing – ‘I hope she didn’t go through what I did’. Her father kicked her out of the house after learning of the adoption, and she struggled to survive on the streets.

In her 20s she was ‘saved’ by meeting her husband and disclosing the abuse to him, and he helped her access appropriate mental health support. She finds it hard to maintain friendships because of her illness, is socially isolated and unable to work, and does not leave the house much. Drinking alcohol is the only thing that allows her to sleep.

Prue contacted the Catholic Church in the early 2000s. When she met with a nun from the order that ran the home she felt intimidated and was unable to advocate for herself. The Sister offered her a small sum as compensation, which in her fear she accepted. Now Prue is angry that she settled for this amount, and that she had nobody to support her at the meeting.

‘Everyone said to me “Prue, you’re a fool”, you know. And I thought “Well, it’s not you sitting in front of the nun, it was me”. I just felt like a little kid again, and I couldn’t talk to her ... When that process happens they shouldn’t have the perpetrators offering to deal with someone, they should have someone else on their behalf. That is so wrong.’

Prue received a further payment from the state redress scheme, and also Forde Foundation assistance with her studies. She then reported Dean to police. When questioned he denied the offences, and police were unable to take the matter further. The officer she dealt with was ‘very good’ but called it ‘an archive case ... It’s just not right’. She also attempted to report the first man who abused her, but he couldn’t be identified.

She hopes that speaking to the Royal Commission will be a point of closure. ‘I’ve wanted to talk to the government all my life really ... I think today will be a good thing, it’s like it would finally put some sort of end to it all, you know, and I can just move on from there.’

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