A Hunter woman is probably the oldest Australian to register under the National Redress Scheme

Accounts: Possibly the oldest person in Australia to seek redress under the National Redress Scheme for suvivors of institutional child sexual abuse is a Hunter woman, 96.
Picture: Marina Neil.
Accounts: Possibly the oldest person in Australia to seek redress under the National Redress Scheme for suvivors of institutional child sexual abuse is a Hunter woman, 96. Picture: Marina Neil.

MARY*, was six years old when her parents abandoned her and her four siblings in 1927 and she was sent to live in a Catholic orphanage with her sister.

Her brothers were taken in by an aunt.

“The boys had potential, the girls didn’t,” is how Mary remembers her aunt’s assessment of the situation.

The Sisters of St Joseph in 2009 confirmed Mary and her sister were admitted to the St Josephs Girls Home at Gore Hill on January 19, 1928 and didn’t leave until two days before Christmas, 1933, when they travelled to Newcastle to live with their mother.

Mary, 96, who still lives in the Hunter, is most likely the oldest person in Australia to apply for redress under the National Redress Scheme to compensate victims of institutional child sexual abuse.

Memories: Saint Josephs Girls' Home at Gore Hill where the Sisters of St Joseph took in girls for nearly eight decades.

Memories: Saint Josephs Girls' Home at Gore Hill where the Sisters of St Joseph took in girls for nearly eight decades.

It is “a settling of accounts”, she said.

“The nuns were so cruel. I don’t think they’d heard of the word Christianity,” she said.

Mary gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about the abuse she experienced at the home.

The one-page letter by the Sisters of St Joseph in 2009 was short on detail and long on finding excuses for the experiences children suffered at the orphanage, Mary said.

The order acknowledged the trauma of being placed in the home and said the loss of both parents was “a difficult thing” with lifelong impacts.

Mary doesn’t dispute that. Her father “wasn’t a very good man”. Her mother abandoned her children once and when she took the girls back in, she was a reluctant parent.

“She wasn’t very happy to have us. It wasn’t a very happy home.”

Champion: CLAN head Leonie Sheedy appeals to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on behalf of people raised in Australian orphanages and children's homes outside the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017.

Champion: CLAN head Leonie Sheedy appeals to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on behalf of people raised in Australian orphanages and children's homes outside the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017.

But the letter spoke too much about the hardships the nuns experienced during the Depression, and their reliance on “generous benefactors and what the Sisters could beg”, Mary said.

“They were adults and we were children. We had no power. The letter presents the nuns as victims. We were the real victims.”

The National Redress Scheme acknowledged that institutions beyond churches failed children. Although her parents abandoned them and failed, the church compounded the failure when crimes were committed against her while in care, Mary said.

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She had nightmares many decades later because of it.

“I feel a lot of grief that I missed my childhood. It still brings tears. I guess we all have experiences in life that makes us what we are and who we are. Some kind of redress where the church has to pay gives you some sense of satisfaction that life hasn’t been in vain. We were only little kids. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s so long ago but it’s finally being acknowledged. At least they recognise something did happen,” Mary said.

At least they recognise something did happen.

Hunter woman Mary, 96, registering for the National Redress Scheme

She had little education and started working as a domestic help in Newcastle homes from the age of 14. She was married at 20 to a violent man and had five children with him. But after 16 years the marriage ended when he left.

Her second husband, Albert, was “a lovely man” who died in 2012 after more than 30 years’ marriage.

Mary was determined to educate her children, with three going on to become teachers.

“I sacrificed everything to educate my kids and they’ve never looked back. My brother once asked me why I put so much into raising my children, and I said it was the satisfaction of knowing I’d done the right thing.”

She relies on the support of family and the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), which represents Australians raised in homes and orphanages and is headed by Leonie Sheedy. Mary is the oldest CLAN member, Ms Sheedy said. 

She was astonished when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established and pleased the National Redress Scheme was eventually supported by Australian governments, although a $150,000 cap on payments, a $79,000 average and the indexing of payments already received by some survivors were a blow.

She doesn’t mind that she could be the oldest Australian to receive support, a financial payment and an apology from the Sisters of St Joseph under the scheme.  

“I never thought I’d see the day but it’s here, so I’ve registered. I’ve got my papers in,” she said.

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