Yvonne was first sexually abused when she was three years old, by her father’s best friend, and belted for telling lies when she disclosed this. Her father was a violent drunk and a strict Catholic, who would not allow her mother to use any contraception even though each pregnancy caused enormous damage to her health and she had had medical advice not to have more children.
In the 1960s the children were placed in care, and Yvonne’s mother died. At 11 years of age Yvonne followed her sister to a Sisters of Mercy orphanage near a large New South Wales town. She hated it there from day one as all of the girls were forced into hard physical labour, and her job was to polish the floors and shoes.
Only a matter of weeks after moving to the orphanage Yvonne was sexually abused by a couple she was sent to stay with one weekend. ‘I don’t remember the people's name but it was both husband and wife that were doing it to me.’
When she returned to the orphanage she ‘told Sister Patrick [the nun in charge of the girls] what had happened. And they dragged me back down to the house to apologise to the couple for running away. Now, I didn’t do any wrong’. She never went back to the couple, but other girls were sent there after her.
During holidays Yvonne was sent to various foster placements, sometimes with another girl but usually on her own. There was no consistency and almost every holiday meant staying with a different family. Some of these placements lasted into school time, and the families would use the girls for their labour.
‘You’d be there for a few weeks and then taken back to the home, just long enough for them to do what they wanted. You know, some it would be for babysitting, some would be for just “clean up me house”. It was just whatever they wanted.’
While with the Parker family she was sexually abused by Mr Parker. ‘He used to come in and touch me, and when I was in the shower he’d come and grab me and push me up against the shower and have sex with me. And his wife was a big woman, she used to push me around a lot because she knew what he was doing. And she slapped me and said that I’d encouraged him. And I ended up running away.’
Yvonne was picked up and taken back to the Parkers, and ‘then they called Sister Patrick. And they took me back to the home again’. She told the nun what Mr Parker had done ‘in front of him and the policeman that took me back’. ‘Sister Patrick said that I was a liar, that I was a known liar ... and not to take any credence in what I had to say.’ The police took the Sister’s word and ‘nothing got done about it’.
Before Yvonne had gone into care, her grandfather had sexually abused her, and this happened again on one occasion when her grandparents took her out from the orphanage. ‘I went back to the home and I told Sister Patrick and I got punished for telling.’
In another placement Yvonne was fondled by her carer who was ‘just wanting to touch all the time round the genital area’. Although mostly she would tell Sister Patrick about the sexual abuse at these placements ‘right towards the end I just stopped. What’s the use?’
At times Yvonne disclose to some of the other nuns, including the Mother Superior, to no avail. The Reverend Mother simply referred her back to Sister Patrick.
‘All we ever got was “these lovely people that go to church are doing the right thing by you”. You know, don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset everybody, don’t tell lies.’
Yvonne was aware that this kind of abuse was not uncommon, as other girls would talk about it when they returned from placements too. Her older friend advised her ‘you just have to accept it, kid’.
She would sometimes overhear the nuns making arrangements with these foster families. ‘I saw it for myself where the phone would ring and they’d say “we want a girl for the weekend”. “Oh okay, well what age?” You know, you might as well just run a brothel. And that’s what it was like. So most of the girls didn’t want to go, they wanted to stay ... We wanted to stay in the home.’
In her early teens Yvonne was raped on her way home from school and became pregnant. Her baby was born early and taken away immediately. She was told her child had died but does not know if this is true.
After this Yvonne was finally able to leave the orphanage to live with relatives. While staying with her aunt she was sexually abused by her cousin, but her aunt would not believe it and threatened that she would be returned to the orphanage if she told anyone else.
Yvonne was married in her mid-teens, and she went on to have further children. She tried to make sure her kids were safe from abuse, and took action if she believed they were at risk. At times she has contemplated and attempted suicide, but these days calls Lifeline if things get bad, and is grateful for the support of her husband and kids. She never reported the abusers to police, and believes most of them would be dead by now.
Some years ago Yvonne was in hospital and a priest arranged for Sister Patrick to visit her there after learning she had been in the orphanage.
‘I just took one look at her and said “I don’t want to see you, go away”. I could not even face her without wanting to punch her face in.
‘And she just looked and said “oh Yvonne”. She said “you’ve been such a lovely girl”.’