When Wilma’s parents separated, her mother took the three youngest children, leaving Wilma, then aged eight, and her two sisters in the care of their father. Six months later, the girls were taken by their father to a New South Wales girls’ home run by the Sisters of Mercy. Because she knew something of farm work, Wilma was put to work straightaway tending cattle and doing work around the property.
‘Some of [the nuns] were just so beautiful, so gentle, and some of them were just so nasty’, she said.
Wilma’s younger sister still bore a scar from where Sister Matthew hit her because she’d been unable to kneel in church due to a knee injury. At a reunion in the 2000s, Sister Matthew told one of the ex-students that she wanted to speak privately with Wilma.
‘I just said, “Forget it, I’m not talking to her”. She was a very nasty person. More for my sister I won’t talk to her.’
When she thought about it later, Wilma wondered if Sister Matthew might have wanted to voice other concerns. For nearly three years from the age of eight, Wilma had been sexually abused by a farmhand and it was likely Sister Matthew had known because there’d been blood on Wilma’s underclothes and sheets. ‘At one stage I was going to throw myself in the river and Sister Matthew saw me, and I think she knew something was going on, but she didn’t ask about it. I think she’s thought about it for years.’
Wilma told the Commissioner that she doubted whether if asked she would have disclosed the abuse. The farmhand had threatened that if she told anybody she’d be put in ‘the dungeon’, a cellar under one of the barns that was rumoured to hold the remains of girls and babies who’d died or vanished. Wilma believed the farmhand’s threat that she’d join them.
‘He’d open the door and say, “There’s a lot of dead people down there and you’ll be one of them”.’ If a child left the orphanage there was no explanation or ceremony of farewell. ‘They just disappeared overnight, and I think this was used on us … You don’t ask questions.’
Before arriving in the home, Wilma and one of her sisters had been sexually abused by their father. Despite knowing this, their mother did nothing to stop the abuse before she left. The sisters had discussed this in later years but, before speaking with the Royal Commission, Wilma had never told anyone about the farmhand’s abuse. She felt embarrassed and ashamed and preferred not to think about it. She hadn’t considered contacting any of the agencies that supported people who’d been in institutional care. ‘I can’t talk without crying so I think it’s better to stay away from them.’
Wilma said she had few friendships and was wary of forming new ones. Whenever people started to get close she cut contact with them because they invariably wanted to know about her family and upbringing. A few people had told her she was lucky to grow up in an orphanage.
‘It’s the not being able to tell anybody anything. You get to know people and they want to know about your background and you don’t want to talk about it, so you’re best off not getting to know anybody. That’s the way I handled it.’
Not being believed was still a concern. ‘I think that people who haven’t been through anything like this would find it hard to believe if you tried to tell them. That’s what I’ve thought a lot, you know, who would believe someone would do something like that? I think that’s why people got away with it for so long.’
Seeing a documentary about child sexual abuse on television was the prompt for her to ring the Royal Commission. ‘You think it’s just you and a few people, but then you see [the television] and think something needs to be done. That’s the reason why I’m here.’