During her 10 years at a Presbyterian-run Aboriginal mission in Western Australia, Sherrill was beaten frequently with a strap made from a ‘half inch thick’ tyre tread. She was also raped by the son of a missionary.
For more than six decades she has been too ‘ashamed’ to tell anyone of her child sexual abuse and she still can’t sleep without the light on.
In the 1950s Sherrill was taken by police to the mission after her grandmother and guardian died. Life on the mission was regimented and there was never enough food.
‘We had to wear what we were told to wear. We didn’t get much to eat most of the time. We had to work. We had to get up five o’clock in the morning and scrub cement floors and stuff like that. It was very, very hard.’
About 30 girls and women slept in a dormitory separated into different age groups and bounded by louvered windows.
‘While the women missionaries were having their prayer meetings their sons [and their friends] used to come and pull the louvres out of the windows, get through there into the dormitories and rape whatever girl they wanted’, Sherrill recounted.
‘I was raped at nine years old. The next day I was too scared to get out of bed. I was ashamed, covered in blood, wouldn’t go to school or anything. The missionary woman who took care of us was called Miss Shadstock and she came and told me to get up out of bed.
‘I told her what had happened. I said, “One of those boys raped me last night”. She said “Don’t tell lies, you’ve just got your periods”.’
‘So I had to get up and wash all those (sheets) in cold water and I kept continuously telling her what had happened and that boys were coming into the rooms and she gave me the strap.
‘I was the only girl, amongst all the girls, who continuously got the strap. The strap was a car tyre cut a half inch thick and doubled right up. The whole tyre was cut up as our strap.’
The girls had a nickname for the strap and ‘I was continuously beaten with this. And I had stripes all over my back, right down to my ankles’, Sherrill remembered.
She ran away from the mission several times, once running ’30 miles’ in the dark alone. On other occasions one of the girls went with her.
‘Every time I ran to the police they didn’t have a bar of it – they didn’t care. The attitude was you are under the care of the mission and what they did was your punishment.’
Sherrill soon took to sleeping in the large dormitory wardrobe that held ‘Sunday Best’ clothing and school uniforms to evade the ‘continuous’ intruding rapists who were ‘all men’, aged 18 or 19 years old, she estimated.
‘I did that most of the time until I left the mission’, she said.
At least six of the girls, some of them her relatives, became pregnant from the rapes. They were sent to a hospital for unmarried women in Fremantle on the mission’s pretext that they had ‘gone for a holiday’.
Once the babies were born they were adopted out – none of it in consultation with the abused girls. Some of those babies, Sherrill later learned, were adopted by families as far away as New South Wales and Canberra, and many never reclaimed their Aboriginal heritage.
Sherrill left the mission when she was 13 and it was later shut down. She lived with her mother for a while and then an uncle and aunt, helping raise a brood of cousins. She later married and had children with an abusive husband.
Later university training enabled her to become involved in programs that helped prisoners reach out to victims and adoptees find their biological families.
‘We are still finding families, from that mission where the kids were taken. It’s sad.’
‘The only thing that kept me going’, Sherrill said, was that ‘I started having children of my own. And I looked after everybody – the homeless, the poor, the drunks. I kind of loved everybody, not myself most of the time, but that kept me going. I was kind of strong enough to think that God put me on earth … to help people.’
Sherrill has not had formal counselling and feels ‘there was not enough done for us mission people’ who had had to band together themselves as a ‘family’ and help each other with funerals and life’s travails.
She feels it is far too late to report her abuser, who is dead, to police. Most of the missionaries have also died. ‘It was very bad what they did to us’, she said.
While she received about $25,000 under the Redress WA scheme which was used to pay debts at the time, she had not previously considered applying for compensation from the Uniting Church.
With many health problems, Sherrill says a lasting impact of her abuse was her attitude to sex.
Her late husband, she said ‘was insanely jealous’ and ‘used to continuously rape me, belt me and since he died … I’ve never even looked at a man’.
The abuse ‘left me with this shameful feeling and to me I feel that sex is dirty’.
‘Thank you for listening to me’, she told the Commissioner.