'We were afraid to claim abuse'

RHONDA was 10 when she was sent to St John’s Orphanage in Thurgoona back in the late 1960s.

By the time she left “in the very early 1970s” she had suffered abuse that haunts her to this day.

“Yes, I was sexually abused and physically abused while I was in institutionalised care, which was purely at St John’s,” she said.

Rhonda did not want to go into the detail, saving it for her confidential testimony to the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse.

St John’s might have called itself an orphanage, but few of the 2000-plus girls who passed through its doors from 1882 to 1978 had actually lost both parents.

Instead, many came from broken homes where one parent, usually the father, had deserted the family or died, leaving their partner unable to cope.

Those who lived at the Sisters of Mercy orphanage have told of a hard life in primitive, harsh conditions, where tough discipline was often handed out — for misdemeanours as minor as talking while walking to church.

The nuns, untrained for childcare, had little government funding and relied on charity.

Some nuns were remembered kindly, though others were known for being “very hard” to the girls.

Rhonda said she didn’t know of other former St John’s children locally with the same experience of abuse.

“But there are people in Albury-Wodonga who have gone and given testimony at the royal commission,” she said.

“And there are others who I’m talking to and encouraging because they are thinking about it.”

Rhonda said one man had told her that giving testimony was not the easiest or the hardest thing he had ever done.

“He is just relieved that he was able to give testimony,” she said.

Rhonda said going to the commission was an important part of the healing process.

“I know that people who have been abused in those ways have shame — even though they were children — for allowing it to happen,” she said.

“How does a child stop that from happening?

“For many years there was a fear of condemnation if you spoke up.”

Rhonda urged anyone who wanted to give evidence to the commission to call Care Leavers of Australia Network on 1800 008 774, or the commission on 1800 099 340.

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