‘I am here to be my father’s voice.’
This is how Verna said she thought of her role, since her father passed away.
But Verna’s voice must be heard too, as the impact on her of the child sexual abuse her father suffered has been profound and lasting.
Verna’s father, Brian, was an orphan and from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s lived at an orphanage in Victoria, run by the Christian Brothers. Here, along with ongoing physical and emotional abuse, child sexual abuse was ‘a daily occurrence’.
Verna told the Commissioner, ‘Dad recounted to me how he was forced to accept the abuse and was helpless to do anything about it. He was strapped severely if he refused and given treats like lollies and cakes and even money when compliant. Dad told how they were made to perform oral sex on the Brothers and if they refused they would be punished.’
One of the Brothers made Brian and other boys masturbate in front of him and gave them extra treats if they brought along more boys. Brian was also made to perform oral sex on priests during his duties as an altar boy and fondled when he was naked in the showers.
Beatings were regular and brutal. On one occasion, a Brother hit Brian so hard it left him with hearing loss. He ran away three times with other boys, but they were picked up by police who didn’t believe their stories. When they were returned to the orphanage, they were beaten, had their heads shaved, and were fed only bread and water for two days.
Verna said she knew from a young age that something was wrong with her father. ‘His alcoholism, anger, isolation, the constant sadness in his eyes. He did things to me in his drunken state that were not normal’.
From as early as Verna can remember, about three years of age, Brian came into her bed and sexually abused her.
‘Each time the sexual abuse finished, my mind wanted to escape but my body was frozen still in fear, it couldn’t move so I waited for my father to fall into a drunken deep sleep and then I quietly slipped out of bed.’
Verna planned her days carefully to protect herself. Brian would watch her shower and get dressed so she avoided doing this at times when she would be home alone with him, sometimes avoiding showers altogether and getting bullied for this at school. She also overate to avoid being attractive to him and still struggles with her weight as a result.
‘Every day was a day that I had to survive and the energy and effort that went into that survival was enormous,’ she said.
‘Going to school daily was a depressing struggle. I couldn’t concentrate, I felt dumb and stupid and I watched the other kids being happy-go-lucky, peaceful and laughing, singing, just having fun. I could never mix into that. I was always a sad, worried little girl because of what that night may bring. And then it started over again the next day.’
Brian was almost always drunk and frequently violent towards Verna’s mother. During one fight he stabbed her in the arm with a carving knife and ended up going to prison. Verna said she sometimes wished him dead because of all the pain, but she was frightened for him too.
‘I had a love/hate relationship with my dad and a lot of pity for him.’
Verna does not believe her mother knew she was being abused because she was heavily doped up on pills in her own effort to survive. The abuse continued until Verna was 15 and her parents’ relationship finally broke up. She was asked which parent she wanted to live with and revealed she didn’t want to go with Brian because of what was happening. She thinks her sister was abused too but they never talked about it. Police were called but her father denied it and no charges were laid.
Verna then tried to take her own life. She lived on the streets for two years, dabbled in sex work and got heavily into drugs to numb the pain. She maintained a relationship with Brian but rarely saw him on her own. She had twin daughters and became hyper-vigilant with them around men, especially her dad.
In the late 1980s, after hearing several television interviews about child abuse, Brian told Verna what had happened to him.
‘It was then that I realised just how much he had suffered,’ she said.
That was when she offered to be his voice, to take the matter further, and he agreed. Verna and Brian went through Towards Healing, which was the first time she’d heard the explicit details of his abuse. The Church gave him $25,000.
Verna said, ‘I felt embarrassed for him, I felt intimidated and ashamed for him, and I felt that the Church representatives were nothing but bullies’.
Verna and her brother and sister accompanied Brian on a reunion to the old orphanage, as a way to acknowledge that part of his identity, despite Brian’s failure to acknowledge what he had done to her.
‘He’s an adult and he was responsible but it was almost like he was a little boy,’ she said.
Brian passed away later that year. It wasn’t until the very end that he admitted what he had done to Verna and her sister.
‘On my dad’s deathbed he said “I’m sorry for what I did to you girls. I’ve been labelled a paedophile all those years … and I’m so sorry to you both”.’
Verna has had counselling over the years but she said the emotional impact had rubbed off on her daughters, who had both been in abusive relationships and had also been sexually abused by a neighbour.
‘I’ve been told many times through counselling that I live in my father’s pain, as well as my own,’ she said. ‘I promised my dad I would be his voice, literally, and I just want to see that we can minimise the risk of any child being in that situation.’