‘The orphanage’s priest never touched me. It was the nuns. There was two there. And it was always at night in their black gear with the white across the forehead, and the beads rustling, and the shoes, the big, solid, high-heeled shoes on the timber floor.
‘Never forget. And I will never forget the smell of it, when she was basically face to face with her hand down, playing with me, and the noise she was – it was a noise like “I’m really enjoying this”, and it’s a growl.’
Steven was born in South Australia in the early 1950s to a 16-year-old mother and a violent, alcoholic father. As a young child, Steven would often hear the ‘crashing and banging sounds’ of his father beating his mother.
One night the police arrived. Steven, his mother and brother were taken away to a hotel. Forty years would pass before Steven saw his father again.
Steven recalls a brief, pleasant time living at the hotel. But it was a hard time for his mother, who had to work and received no support from her brothers. Eventually, Steven said, ‘my mum’s family decided that my mother would be better off without my brother and me’.
So at age six, with no understanding of what was happening, Steven was delivered to a Catholic orphanage where he was separated from his brother and put into a dorm with boys as old as 15.
Over the next few months some of these boys regularly sexually abused Steven, as did one of the nuns. At night she would walk across the creaky floorboards to his bed, put her hand under the sheets and grab his penis. Steven never knew which nun it was, because she always attacked him in the dark, but he’s never forgotten the sound of her approaching footsteps and the ‘specific smell’ of her.
Steven might have told the priest about the abuse if he could, but at that stage of his life he didn’t have the communication skills to put his experiences into words. ‘How could I tell the priest what was happening to me when I couldn’t even say my surname?’
Steven stayed at the orphanage for almost a year, then went to live with his mother and her new partner. He enjoyed a safe and comfortable home life for the next few years but it couldn’t undo the damage that had already been done.
He said that after leaving the orphanage he lived in fear of poverty, which was why he became a workaholic. ‘Poverty drives me’, he said. ‘And the fear of going back.’
He developed a disrespect for women and physically abused some of his partners. He self-medicated with alcohol for many years.
Steven kept the abuse to himself for much of his adult life and may have remained silent until the end if his brother hadn’t disclosed some of the details of his own traumatic childhood to their mother. She rang Steven and asked him about what he’d been through. When Steven told her, she cried.
His mother then contacted the Catholic Church and that ‘started the ball rolling’. Steven engaged with their redress process which was supposed to ‘help me heal’, but in the end ‘it just made me worse’.
Most painful of all was his experience with the nuns who were sent to deliver the Church’s apology.
‘They didn’t believe me. I said “Males are not the only ones that get sexual urges. There’s also females too”. They believed nothing. They hinted to me that nuns would never do that … That really, really hurt me.’
No money was offered. When he engaged lawyers to make a claim on his behalf, the Church ignored them for years. It’s only very recently that the Church has agreed to open negotiations.
Meanwhile, Steven’s wellbeing is improving. He’s stopped drinking and has started taking ‘fantastic’ medication for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s got a good counsellor and has just met a woman who is ‘the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. She’s just so decent to me’.
With all of these supports in place he’s been able to slow down a little and take a few breaks from work.
‘I’m telling everybody now, “Do not phone me after half-past five at night”. You can phone me from half-past five am to 5.30 pm. Do not ring me. I’m telling everybody now, because I’ve got a life. I want a life back.’