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Tui's story

There is much Tui doesn’t know about her early life. She remembers arriving at a Catholic home for children in the mid-1950s but doesn’t know why that came about. She was seven at the time. Before that, she had been at a home for babies, whose records show she arrived as a two-year-old. She has no memory of the years in between.

But she knows that she’d had polio, and because of that she had to wear callipers and couldn’t walk. And that meant that when she arrived at the Catholic home she was separated from her four siblings and isolated in a room on her own, far away from the main orphanage. Contact with her siblings broke down and in the many years since has never been resumed.

Tui spent seven years at the home in a northern suburb of Sydney. For all of that time she was kept apart from the other children. She didn’t go to school. Her room was in a largely disused part of the building, out of sight and out of mind. The only person nearby was a nun, Sister Ludwig, Tui’s main carer and her abuser.

Tui was a chronic bed-wetter, she explained, probably due to her paralysis. ‘That set off something in this woman from day one.’

Sister Ludwig would physically and verbally assault Tui. She stripped Tui’s clothes off and moved her out to the balcony where she left her, naked, for hours at a time.

‘I would be left out on this open-air balcony with no clothes on because I’d wet the bed – and I wet the bed and I wet the bed – and every discipline for wetting the bed seemed to escalate’, Tui recalled. Sister Ludwig would stuff the wet sheets into Tui’s mouth and called her a ‘little filthy black bitch’, a term which confused Tui until she found out much later that her grandmother was Aboriginal.

‘There were just so many things this woman would do’, Tui said. Getting Tui’s callipers and braces on and off required doing up and undoing a lot of buckles. Sister Ludwig would give Tui five minutes to complete the task and if she couldn’t do it in time she’d have to sleep in them. If she wet the bed the buckles would get wet and eventually rusty, making them even harder to manage.

One night Sister Ludwig came in, yanked the sheets off Tui and pulled her legs apart. ‘She pushed this thing inside me and called it her plug. That was supposed to fix my bed-wetting’, Tui said.

Sister Ludwig became and more violent as time went on. ‘Her floggings were really insane’, Tui said. After one episode Tui, now able to walk, ran away and hid. She was found by another nun, who asked Tui to tell her what was wrong.

‘So I told her what had been happening to me … I can still remember the feeling of being almost grown up, because someone was listening to me and speaking to me more as a person. She said “I’ll fix this”. I thought it would all change.’

But it didn’t, and not long afterwards a particularly frenzied beating from Sister Ludwig prompted Tui to run away again. She was 14. This time she caught a train to Kings Cross.

For the next two years Tui was a street kid in Kings Cross, fostered by prostitutes and other people living on the streets.

‘I always thought I was going to get caught, and someone would surely come for me – I surely meant something to someone – but nothing ever happened’, she said.

She earned money from busking, and after two years saved enough to buy passage on a boat to New Zealand. There she continued the involvement with music that became her working life and also the way she met her partner, who she’s been with for the past 35 years.

Tui faced a number of obstacles in trying to come to terms with her past. In particular, records were missing or unavailable. Sister Ludwig is no longer alive, but several years ago she called Tui on the phone. ‘I heard this craggy old voice say “We made a lot of mistakes back then, just pray for my soul”. I said “Pray for your own soul”, and slammed the phone down.’

She has not approached Towards Healing or any other redress scheme but has had some support from Catholic Care. She has kept what happened to her very private, she said.

Tui believes that to prevent such abuse occurring in the future, children need to know there’s back-up – she proposed a dedicated helpline they can call. They need more than one source of protection, she said. ‘Every child should have a circle of people that checks, in an ongoing way, all the time. So if something is astray, or there’s a personality clash that’s irreparable, then that child can be put in a better environment.’

Prevention is essential, she said, because it’s impossible to recover from experiences such as hers. ‘We’re going through life as damaged adults’, she said. ‘It’s hard to admit that, but you’re a damaged human being … You really grieve for who you could have been, rather than what you are.’

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