Katie, 96, still has nightmares about her time at the orphanage, which she describes as “hell”. (ABC News: Colin Kerr)
Katie was six years old when she arrived at the orphanage run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
Nine decades later, one of Australia’s oldest survivors of child sexual abuse cannot forget the humiliation and pain she suffered during her years at the institution in Gore Hill on Sydney’s north shore.
“I’ve never known anyone in my life to be as cruel as those nuns were,” the 96-year-old said.
“I did say to them that I thought the good Lord wouldn’t send me to hell because I’d been there for six years.”
Katie, who turns 97 in December, agreed to share her story with the ABC ahead of the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse at Parliament House on Monday.
She wanted to be identified, but asked that her surname be withheld.
Abandoned by her parents
It was just before Christmas in 1927 when Katie’s life changed forever.
Her mother left her and her four siblings and — upon discovering his children home alone — her seaman father hopped straight back on a boat.
The boys were sent to live with their aunt, while Katie and her older sister Mary were told they would be visiting “grandma”.
“We were just put there and forgotten,” she said.
Katie was just six years old when she and her older sister Mary were sent to the orphanage. (ABC News)
Over the next few years, Katie’s job at the orphanage was to wash two flights of stone steps each morning before breakfast, which consisted of worm-ridden porridge.
“We would count the grubs in the porridge which we ate because we were so hungry,” she said.
Occasionally, with luck, a piece of bread could be concealed in their pants. But the nuns were always watching.
At meal times they would pace up and down rows of tables, a cane in one hand, rosary beads in the other.
Any girl who spoke would get a whack across their back.
Some of the 120 girls at the orphanage would return home to their families on weekends.
“They were really taken care of and … didn’t get the beatings we got, because there was no one to care about us,” Katie said.
Mass was a daily 6am ritual during which members of the public were strictly not to be spoken to.
“I often thought it would be nice if they would like to have me for a little girl, life was so lonely,” Katie said.
The Gore Hill orphanage, run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, was Katie’s home for six years. (ABC News)
Night time offered no solace.
An older girl who slept nearby would climb into Katie’s bed and sexually abuse her, in episodes which continue to cause her nightmares.
During those vulnerable, life-forming years at the orphanage, Katie was told she was worthless so many times, she came to believe it.
“Some of the girls ran away,” she said.
“I would have loved to have run away but I didn’t know where to go — who would want me?”
In December 1933, the girls were elated to learn they could return to their mother.
But excitement turned to disappointment when they discovered she had a new family and they were to refer to her only as “aunt”.
Over the years, Katie and her sister tried to tell their mother about what they had been through, but she did not believe such abuse would be dished out by nuns.
‘A lifetime sentence’
Katie went on to have five children and is now a great-grandmother to 33.
Despite the joys of family life, the dark cloud of her past still lingers.
“When it comes to sexual abuse, I don’t think many people realise it’s a lifetime sentence.”
“You just relive it and relive it.
“It’s still difficult for me, you kind of feel dirty, you feel worthless.”
Katie is disappointed she has not received any response to her redress application. (ABC News: Colin Kerr)
Katie does not think any abuse survivor’s story is worse than another but that “it’s horrible for everybody”.
“You live with it until your dying day and it doesn’t get any better,” she said.
She acknowledged her abuse has affected the way she has parented her own children.
Katie applied to the National Redress Scheme in July but has heard nothing since then.
“I haven’t had a penny yet. I think they’re waiting for me to die so they don’t have to pay me,” she said.
She is hoping any money could go towards her funeral expenses and helping her children out.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph told the ABC they were sorry for the trauma children suffered while in their care.
“We are profoundly sorry for the pain and trauma they experienced and the impact it has had on their lives over many years,” Sister Marion Gambin said.
Sr Gambin said they were committed to signing up for the National Redress Scheme and were in talks with the National Redress Office.
“The Sisters of Saint Joseph have always been open and willing to engage with survivors of abuse,” she said.
“We have a sincere desire to assist in their journey of healing.”
Katie never thought she would see the day that a Prime Minister would recognise her suffering.
For this reason, the national apology is “very important” because “at least someone’s aware that it happened and can say sorry”.
She was planning to travel to the apology by train with her daughter — a mammoth task involving changing trains three times while on a walker.
However, just hours after her interview with the ABC, the Federal Government offered plane tickets.
As Scott Morrison says those important words on Monday, Katie hopes it will bring her a sense of peace.
“It’s a big thing for people to listen and take note of what we went through,” she said.