They were Ballarat’s forgotten children.
Helpless and vulnerable, they were subjected to relentless and sadistic abuse inside the walls of Ballarat’s Nazareth House Girls’ Home at the hands of Catholic Church clergy for years.
But even in the outside world, inside the homes of people who would take the girls in under the pretext of giving them a summer holiday away from their daily torment, some were not safe.
Gail Fletcher who spent her childhood at the girls’ home can pinpoint the exact moment her innocence was shattered.
It was the late 1950s. She was 12. She and one of her four sisters who lived in the orphanage packed their bags and caught a train down to Wycheproof, a small rural town in north western Victoria to stay with an elderly couple. Ms Fletcher is still haunted by flashbacks of an elderly man standing in his underwear.
He gave her and sister lollies moments before he sexually abused them while his wife looked on.
“I’ve spent my life blocking out the memories but I can still see their faces so clearly,” she said.
“When I got back to the home I told the other kids what had happened. I was belted by one of the nuns who overhead me and made to feel like somehow it was my fault.”
While Ms Fletcher was never sexually abused inside the Nazareth House Girls’ Home she was subjected to physical brutality and psychological torment.
Even as a child, Ms Fletcher sensed disgraced paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale was evil. It was the eerie familiarity he forced on the orphans when he was the school’s chaplain in 1963 and 1964.
The sense of entitlement he projected as he sauntered around the grounds of the children’s home dressed in his black priestly robes.
It was also the submissiveness of the Catholic nuns around him.
Ridsdale would visit Nazareth House and take girls away as he chose. Nobody ever intervened.
“He was rotten from the inside out,” Ms Fletcher said.
But it’s what he did to her older sister that left her heart irreparably broken.
“He took an instant dislike to my sister,” Ms Fletcher said.
“She would have been about 12 when he grabbed her in front of all the children and called her a ‘mongrel’.”
Days later, Ridsdale removed her sister from the orphanage and she was taken to the Larundel Mental Asylum.
After undergoing years of electric shock treatment her sister suicided at 22.
Ms Fletcher is pushing for justice for her sister and the scores of other broken children who have died prematurely.
"My sister was tormented for years but her pain has just been swept under the carpet," she said. "I want to see her get recognition somewhere."
Ex-resident of the children's home Gabrielle Short said the abuse inflicted on the women had destroyed lives with many now dead, homeless or living in poverty.
She recalled one girl who was raped by Ridsdale attempting suicide by trying to jump out the second floor window in the middle of the night.
The other orphans formed a barrier around the girl to stop her before a nun came in and beat her until she was curled up in the foetal position.
“We had nowhere to turn,” Ms Short said. “We couldn’t turn to each other because if we cuddled the other children we were told we were doing dirty things.”
As a child, her fingers were covered in swollen chilblains caused by the nuns beating her hands with rulers until she almost passed out.
One nun tried to drown her by holding her head in a sink full of water.
Girls who wet themselves from fear were forced to lick up their urine by the nuns, she said.
As private submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse come to a close, Ms Short is pushing for an independent inquiry into all forms of abuse in religious and state run orphanages including an investigation into systematic rape, physical and psychological abuse and claims of medical experimentation on children.
“The Royal Commission has just skimmed the surface of the extent of abuse at children's homes,” Ms Short said.
She wants the high rates of suicides of people who grew up institutional care investigated and national redress including priority housing and healthcare cards similar to the gold card that war veterans receive given to all orphans.
Like Ms Fletcher, Shirley Humm wants justice for her sister.
Susie who had an intellectual disability would wander around the grounds of the children’s home carrying a brick with a blanket wrapped around it.
It was her only toy. She was four when she vanished.
“One day she just wasn’t there,” Ms Humm said. “We were never told where she was taken.” Ms Humm grew up in the girls home in the 1950s and 60s.
She is haunted by flashbacks of sitting on Ridsdale’s lap.
“I can see his huge hands rubbing my knees and then my mind goes black,” she said.
Ballarat resident Ruby Bentley spent years trying to numb herself with drugs and alcohol before she was able to turn her life around.
It was her way of blocking out years of sexual and physical abuse she suffered at five different children’s homes across Victoria.
“I’m scared of people, always have been,” she said. “I was used to being beaten down, sexually abused and locked up. I didn’t know how to cope in the outside world.”
She is joining the women in their calls for action for orphans still living today, including more support groups for women who grew up institutional care.
“We want systems put in place to ensure the kids in care today are not sexually abused by the people meant to protect them,” she said.
To contact CASA, located on the corner of Vale and Edwards streets, Sebastopol, call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours 1800 806 292. Lifeline can be accessed on 13 11 14.
Lifeline: 13 11 14.
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