‘The good Lord won’t send me to hell – I’ve been there.’
For Regina, hell was the Catholic girls’ home in a northern Sydney suburb she lived in just after World War I.
She spoke with the Royal Commission, and also provided written information, about her experiences at the home. Regina and her older sister Grace were placed there when she was six years old, after their mother abandoned them and their siblings.
The nuns who ran the orphanage treated the children cruelly. ‘You just don’t understand people, who are supposed to be religious, where’s the Christianity? You wonder where the Christianity is, you know.’
Every day, Regina was made to scrub three flights of cold stone stairs. If anyone walked on them before they’d dried, she’d have to wash them again. Grace was put to work in the kitchen, and other girls would bash her if she didn’t steal food for them.
There were grubs in the porridge, and bread and dripping for most meals. On Sunday they’d be given a saveloy for breakfast, and a ‘dose of salts’. Regina still can’t eat rice or tapioca –‘frogs eyes’, they called it – as these would usually be served up ‘all glued together’.
The girls had no possessions. Not having toothbrushes meant using fingers and salt, or soot from the coppers, to clean their teeth. At Christmas they would receive a rag doll, or maybe a small book. The next day it would be taken away, so it could be given again the next year.
Physical abuse from the nuns was routine. Sister Dora would poke the children with a pointed piece of wood until they were covered in bruises, or beat them viciously. ‘We often had blood left on our bodies but there was nobody to see or care.’
Regina wished she could run away, but saw what happened to the girls who did. ‘The police would bring them back and they would be unmercifully caned all over their body. It was awful to see. Blood would be drawn.’
Their beds were made of straw, and Regina was a ‘continual bed wetter’. ‘I used to have to get into bed on the wet mattress because it would not dry ... The sheets were pinned to our backs to show the other children we wet the bed. The girls used to tell ghost stories and I was terrified to go to the toilet during the night.’
When Regina first got to the home, she was sexually abused by Elsie, a girl a couple of years older. Elsie would continuously make sexual advances towards her. Regina would be forced to remove her clothes, and to rub her body against Elsie’s.
This abuse happened at night, in their dormitory. There were no nuns supervising the girls while they slept. An older girl in the top bunk was supposed to take care of them, but was always asleep herself. If the nuns suspected what was going on, ‘I honestly don’t think they cared’.
Elsie abused Regina for weeks, until being moved. Regina never told anyone. ‘It was new to me, I didn’t know what was happening ... We were taught to just be obedient, and you just took things in your stride.’
Regina and Grace wrote to their mother, but rarely saw her. ‘The letters were censored and we were always saying things like "we are happy here", that was the only way our letters were sent.’
They were returned to their mother when Regina was 12. When they tried to tell her about their treatment at the home, ‘she just said “they were nuns” and she wouldn’t hear any more. They were nuns’. If Regina made a mistake, even something very small, her mother would tell her ‘I will send you back to where you came from’.
Regina’s mother put her older brother, Mathew, in charge of the children. ‘That was the worst thing she could have done. She didn’t want to bother with us.’ When Mathew sexually abused Regina, ‘we couldn’t say anything, we couldn’t protest it in any way, Mathew was right and we were wrong’.
Regina married early, ‘just to get out of the house’, but her first husband was a violent man. ‘In those days you’d call the police, and they’d say, “We don’t interfere in domestic arguments”.’
She eventually left after a decade of abuse. ‘I had to, for the sake of my children, they lived a hell of a life too.’ Her second marriage was much happier, and ‘I had my rewards later in life’.
The girls at the home were trained for domestic service, and Regina did not receive much schooling even though she was smart. Her second husband told her ‘you’re very bright in the head ... it’s a shame you didn’t get an education. You could have been a lawyer’.
Regina experienced nightmares, and ‘I did get to a point where I had to get some counselling ... things were going round and round in my head, and I thought I was going to go nuts’.
She found a counsellor, but did not disclose the sexual abuse. Nor has she ever told her children, or friends from her church community. ‘There’s a certain amount of shame stuck to that, it’s still there. I kind of feel, was it my fault? You feel guilty.’
Now that Regina is quite elderly, her biggest fear is having to live in a nursing home, as she is scared of being abused again. ‘I believe it’s happening in nursing homes, is really bad ... I’d rather die than go to a nursing home, I really would.’