‘Life is busy and you push things down, and sometimes it takes a catalyst to bring something about’, Winifred told the Commissioner.
For Winifred, the catalyst was a workplace accident a few years ago. Unexpectedly, it brought together previously fragmented memories of her childhood in Sydney’s western suburbs in the 1950s and early 1960s. ‘Because I had a head injury, as well as other injuries, all these little boxes in my head that stuff had been stored away in all wanted to open at the same time’, she told the Commissioner.
The memories were of sexual abuse she’d experienced as a child. She was molested first by a next door neighbour and then by a female staff member at a Catholic institution for girls, where she was sent after repeatedly running away.
The new recall of these incidents prompted by her accident led her to seek out counselling. It was the first time she’d spoken about what happened to her to anyone outside her family. She’d told her father and her son some years before. She didn’t get a chance to tell her mother, who’d died very suddenly. ‘She would have been absolutely devastated to know what happened to me.’
Winifred said her mother and father were good parents, who gave her a good home. ‘[They] never knew why I behaved the way I did when I was a kid.’
Both parents worked. That meant Winifred, an only child, was a latchkey kid from the age of seven. When she came home after school to the family’s Housing Commission flat, the next door neighbour, Bryan Hackson, would see her arrive. ‘I used to come inside and lock the door and hide. I’d bring the dog in with me. I’d do anything to hide from him. But I couldn’t tell anyone.’
The only solution she found to Hackson’s ongoing assaults was running away. She got further each time. As a 12-year-old she ran away to Melbourne. She found a job in a factory there, and a room in a boarding house. She lived independently for six months. But one day she opened the door to police. They put her on an aeroplane back to Sydney. Her parents agreed to a care and protection order, and she was sent to the home for girls.
At first, her new life went well. Hackson couldn’t get to her. She enjoyed the company of the other girls. ‘And I went to school there … Some of the nuns were good, some of them weren’t – some of the girls were good, some of them weren’t. But it was an environment where I learned to cope and for the first probably three or four months I was there I felt safe.’
That changed when Winifred attracted the attention of Peggy Nolan, a house mother and also a supervisor at the institution’s commercial laundry where the girls worked after school. She was tough on the girls at the laundry, and at night would force herself on Winifred, touching her inappropriately and making Winifred do the same to her. Nolan’s bed was very close to Winifred’s. Winifred asked another staff member if she could move her bed. ‘I didn’t say why, because I couldn’t say why’, she told the Commissioner.
‘You think if you’re in a place where there’s women that you’re going to be safe. You don’t expect any sort of sexual assault, not that I even really knew what it was then. But you just knew it was wrong. You don’t expect that when you’re in an environment where there’s all women. That trust and all that sort of thing just goes … It becomes a whole jumble in your mind about who to trust and who not to trust.’
Winifred dealt with the issue as she had before – she ran away. ‘I think I had this learned behaviour about running away when things went wrong. I did it in my later life as well.’
Once again she was brought back. ‘No one ever asked why you ran away … Never once in the whole time did anyone ask why I was doing what I was doing.’ As punishment, her time at the home was extended. In the end she spent 15 months there, and was abused by Nolan throughout that time.
Nearly 50 years later, Winifred reported Hackson and Nolan to police. They launched an investigation into Hackson, who was eventually found unfit to stand trial. But they didn’t pursue any action against Nolan. Winifred feels they didn’t believe a woman could really be an abuser.
The counselling Winfred had after her accident helped her to come to terms with her experiences, she said. ‘It taught me why I’ve behaved the way I’ve been in my life.’ In the early 2000s, she attended a reunion of women who’d been in the institution. It seemed to her that many had been unable to move forward with their lives. ‘They were basically still back there, and I don’t know why. And that’s the way they live their life.’
Winifred has been luckier. ‘I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to push it back, so I’ve been able to live my life … I’ve done a lot in my life, and I’m very pleased I’ve had that. And I wish I could drag everyone up with me, to have the same experiences’, she said.
She thanked the Commissioner for the opportunity to share her story. ‘It’s good to have the platform, I must admit, to be able to speak freely.'
‘The thing is, people say “It’s such a long time ago” – but if we don’t talk about what’s happened in the past, we’ve got no chance of fixing it for the future.’