The tiny regional town of Elliminyt (population 2645) located just outside Colac in rural Victoria, is surrounded by pretty volcanic plains and sprawling rural properties. It’s in an area best known for its agriculture and light industry. Yet for Debora Wooby, this seemingly ordinary Australian town, 150km southwest of Melbourne, is forever ingrained in her memory as the location where she is brutally betrayed by a man entrusted with her care. Debra, 55, is not sure she’ll ever see justice for the care worker who raped her, stealing her virginity and her innocence as a vulnerable 13-year-old child at Elliminyt’s St Cutherbert’s orphanage in the mid-1970’s.
With the familiar modus operandi used by paedophiles, the married man in his late 20s had been grooming her for some time, inviting her to listen into his private room to listen to music. He offered the young teen cigarettes, friendship, attention and kindness. One afternoon, suddenly forced himself onto her. “I had nobody to tell,” the mother of three tells marie claire, tearful as she speaks of the horror that still haunts her decades later. “I was bleeding and confused; I hadn’t even had my period. He told me to go away and clean myself up.”
Debra, who later found her abuser had possibly attacked other children at home had possibly attacked other children at the home, is one of half a million Australians who experienced institutional and other out-of-home “care” in Australia during the 20th century. Those who were abused in these institutions refer to themselves as the “white stolen generation”. They say their abuse in forgotten towns across the country has been overlooked in the national conversation sparked by the five-year-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which issued its final damning report in December.
Often, their shocking yet hugely significant personal stories have been drowned out by media reports and headlines regarding the dark era of systematic Catholic clergy abuse and sinister cover-ups in paedophile hubs including Ballarat in Victoria and Newcastle, NSW. The international interest in the ongoing legal proceedings against Cardinal George Pell regarding allegations of historical sexual offences also has not helped.
But according to Des Cahill, professor of intercultural studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, all Australians need to be aware that child abuse was widespread across the nation for many decades. The abuse took place in these forgotten hotspots at a broad spectrum of institutions, from Salvation Army homes to sporting clubs and schools. The effects of such pervasive abuse are still being felt in towns and suburbs around the country.
“It’s critical to understand that while the Catholic Church has been the main offender in all states ... abuse was also carried out in small towns by every day Australians such as tradesmen visiting orphanages or foster carers looking after a child for a weekend,” says Cahill.
In volume 11 of the final report of the Royal Commission, the suffering of these “forgotten Australians” is revealed in depth. The report showed that between May 2013 and May 2017, 6875 people came forward and told their stories of sexual abuse to one or more Commissioners during a private session. More than one-third of these survivors described abuse that took place in a residential institution.
“Their childhoods were marked by trauma, brutality and violence,” the report says. “Many survivors described being physically and emotionally abused and, as a result, carried lifelong physical and mental scars. They said that as children in youth detention, mental health institutions and reception centres, they were often subjected to strip searches which many found humiliating and intimidating. Many survivors said they were frightened by seeing other children beaten or suddenly go missing.”
While these children bore the brunt of the abuse, the legacy of these institutions left a long shadow over the towns. Liz Spence, a member of the Colac & District Family History Group, says that while St Cuthbert’s orphanage had long since closed and been replaced by a housing estate, its impact was still very much felt in the area.
“Stories are still coming out about what went on and [are] talked about locally,” she says. “All these years later, more pieces of the puzzle are ... being put together and it’s pretty shocking.
“We are realising now more than before that life inside there was very hard for the kids. The old building may be gone now, but it is still talked about and is very much part of the fabric of the local area in terms of living history.”
Liz says the publicity around the Royal Commission has sparked more recent conversation and memories.
“Just the other day, a man from Western Australia came to our group to ask about it as he had been in there as a child and wanted to do research. I could tell it was a painful but important pilgrimage for him.
“The orphanage may have been overlooked, but among those of us living locally and who lived there as children, the suffering will never be forgotten and that’s as it should be.”
Liz had personal knowledge of the orphanage as a relative had stayed there. “His mother couldn’t cope as she had so many children, so he went there for a short time,” she said. “He witnessed beatings and children being punished with a leather strap, but thankfully he was able to go home again before any- thing happened to him. He told me he just wants to move on and get on with his life rather than dwell on the past.”
For Debra, her quest for justice for the care worker who cruelly attacked her has stretched over many long and anguished years. Though she didn’t make a complaint to police until she was in her 40s, her abuser was eventually found and arrested before Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions had to drop the case due to a statute of limitations. (The statute sets out the maximum time after a crime that a court case can start.)
“Because of the statute, they couldn’t find a way around it,” Debra says. “It was devastating. I felt every- thing I’d been through was for nothing.”
In the years since, Debra has suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are common in child abuse victims. However, recent news has given her hope for justice as another alleged victim of the same man has come forward.
“This poor lady says he assaulted her in the shower and in bed in the home when she was just 10. I’ve got hope again now that he can face court. I just have to be patient and wait.”
Endless stories of despair and courage are found among many Australian adults who spent time in orphanages, but they are “blending into everyday life” according to leading advocates. Though the outpouring of stories through the Royal Commission has helped the healing process for victims, there is still much work to be done. “Australians need to know their own history,” says Leonie Sheedy, CEO of Care Leavers Australasian Network. “A victim is a victim and the abuse has been so widespread. So many have taken their own lives. The public need to be taught this happened.”
For Rhonda Janetzki, 59, the emotional hangover of her childhood torn apart by abandonment and abuse in a tiny town in NSW remains today. She was left at St John’s girls’ orphanage in Thurgoona, near Albury in NSW, a few months after turning 10. She had lived with her aunt since she was two, but when her aunt’s health began to decline, she was driven to the orphanage by her alcoholic father.
“I was dropped off and told to go to Mother Superior and they got in the car and drove away,” she remembers. “I was taken into a room and my clothes, suitcase and doll were taken off me. I was put in old clothes so I’d be the same as the rest of the children.”
On her first night at the orphanage, opened in 1882 by the Sisters of Mercy, she was force-fed sago pudding even though it was making her vomit.
“There was also a hell of a lot of physical abuse if you wet the bed,” she says. “I used to sleep underneath the bed so I wouldn’t get a hiding.” Most disturbingly, every third Sunday, Rhonda was taken away by a dairy farmer and his wife to ostensibly spend a relaxed and happy day with them on their farm. But soon the farmer began abusing her away from the gaze of his family.
“He would give me a hot chocolate and take me into a prayer room at their house and abuse me or take me with him to feed the cattle and do things to me,” she says. “I had nobody to tell. I was intimidated and so young Rhonda spent five years enduring hellish physical, emotional and sexual abuse before being sent off to work as a maid. Retired electrician Joe Wooding, 80, who lives in nearby Albury, is haunted by this horrific chapter in the area’s history, having witnessed the “appalling treatment “of the children as a young man.
“But I felt powerless; I was young and I didn’t know how to help. The children seemed so shy and scared; they were being treated like slaves and made to scrub doors, as well as work in the bakery and dairy.”
Looking back, Joe remembers seeing up to 200 children in the facility, many clearly suffering mental health problems due to their incarceration at of the children as a young man. “I used to work there often as an apprentice electrician from the mid 1950s onwards doing various tasks, and the treatment of the children there really was horrendous,” he recalls. “But I felt powerless; I was young and I didn’t the often cruel hands of those who were supposedly in charge of their wellbeing. “It was pretty obvious that if they didn’t do as they were told, they would get whacked and God knows what else.”
Joe believes the local residents were unlikely to have known the full scale of the horrors unfolding inside. “Every year the orphanage would put on a music night and sell tickets to raise funds for the place,” he says. “And it was very well supported by the local residents, but in truth it was a very, very sad place and many of the stories of what went on are still coming out now.”
With the original building still standing, the memories remain firmly attached to what has become a local historical landmark.
“Of course, the younger generation in the area might not be fully aware of what sort of place it was, but those in my age group know and it’s a horrible stain on our regional history.”
Today, Rhonda is able to share her vivid memories of the orphanage with her husband Roy, who himself was abused in several residential homes as a child before they married 42 years ago. The couple, who live just outside Albury, have four adult children together and admit their experiences made them “hypervigilant and somewhat overprotective” as parents.
“When you’ve experienced abuse as a child, you do your damned hardest to make sure your kids don’t go through what you went through,” Rhonda says. “So I made a decision to be at home with the kids and I admit I became a helicopter mum. I wouldn’t let them go on sleepovers and I always needed to know who they were with at all times.
“I felt it was my duty to protect them as best I could, as I knew the agony of what it’s like to live with the memories which never leave you.”
At the final hearing of the five-year- long Royal Commission, prompted by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, the Hon. Justice Peter McClellan presented the National Library of Australia with a book of around 1000 messages written by survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
The book, titled Message to Australia, is a collation of personal messages written by those who shared their accounts with the Commission. The messages, addressed to the Australian public, tell of survivors’ experiences and their hopes for creating as safer environment for children. Survivors such as Debra and Rhonda waived their anonymity in the hope that their speaking out would help prevent future abuse.
“There is a huge legacy left by the survivors not just for Australia but the whole world,” says Des Cahill. “Their bravery means important changes in institutions so an era like this is hopefully never seen again.”
Anyone affected by this story can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.