Orphange 'cruelty': Where smiling was banned

MAUREEN Cuskelly remembers being forbidden to smile when she was in an orphanage in her teens.

And if she waved at her sisters or brother housed elsewhere in the orphanage, she’d be hauled up before a stern mother superior and belted with a strap.

Such was life for girls from broken homes in Victoria from the 1950s to early 1970s.

Ms Cuskelly, 57, of Wodonga, is keen to see the royal commission find out the truth about thousands of children kept in homes run by the Catholic and other churches, as well as state or non-religious agencies.

Today, as a professional mental health educator working in the North East, she knows the mental and physical abuse and deprivation suffered by women like her has a long-lasting impact.

“There was no sexual abuse I know of at the Abbotsford (Melbourne) and St Aidan’s (Bendigo) orphanages where I stayed, but there was a lot of other abuse,” she said yesterday.

“It’s important the royal commission looks at this — as well as the sexual abuse claims.”

Ms Cuskelly was one of seven children of a father who was unemployed for much of her childhood and a mother who suffered periodic depression.

Ms Cuskelly was recently reunited with her father after 50 years.

“I hadn’t seen him since I was seven — he lives in country NSW and is a gorgeous man,” she said.

She found her father had been raised — and mistreated — in a Geelong boys’ home and in various foster homes, and could tell stories worse than his daughter could.

Ms Cuskelly entered the Abbotsford Convent of the Good Shepherd when she was 17 months old and her mother was having another baby.

“I was there until I was seven, and my mother and father visited me, but when the nuns found out he was unemployed, they stopped him coming,” she said.

Her mother moved to Bendigo about 1964 when Ms Cuskelly was seven, and collected all the children home from various orphanages.

“When I was 12, I went into the Bendigo orphanage because my mother’s mental problems came back, and I was there until I was 17,” she said.

She then stayed in a girls’ hostel, completed year 12 and qualified to be a nurse, later raising two children of her own.

Ms Cuskelly said the smiling ban came from a St Aidan’s nun, the late Mother Rita, who was removed from her post by the Irish headquarters of the Good Shepherd order.

“Mother Rita was cruel,” she said,

“She was a small nun but if she went to belt you she’d have with her one of her “minders”, one of the women who had lived at St Aidan’s a long time.

“Some of them — but not all — were intellectually disabled and never left the place they’d lived in since childhood.”

“You knew Mother Rita would be cross and disapproving if you were caught smiling, so you learned to be totally unresponsive.”

Ms Cuskelly smiles when she recalls “the nuns had their own happy hours”.

“I don’t know what they did but I imagine embroidery and telling each other stories,” she said.

Among other bans for the girls were speaking to any of the few men working heavy laundry machinery or in the garden.

Ms Cuskelly said forced labour was another form of abuse for the children.

“We polished and scrubbed and worked in the laundry,” she said.

Although such homes were called orphanages, most boys and girls in them were from broken families or neglected backgrounds, or one parent had died or deserted the partner.

She reckons nuns simply didn’t like the concept of family.

“We had the impression they thought ‘family’ was the root of all evil,” she said.

“We didn’t really have a childhood — we weren’t children (as young teenagers) but weren’t adults, either, although we were forced to work like adults.

Schooling at St Aidan’s was done largely by correspondence.

“We never went outside except perhaps to walk around the block outside once a month, and it was rare for any visitor to come inside — there was no ‘open day’.”

“So we really had no contact with the outside world.”

“The royal commission should look at all these things like the beatings, the deprivation and going hungry for years.”

Thanks to social media, Ms Cuskelly has caught up with about 20 of her old friends.

“Up to a few years ago I only found one every 10 years but using Facebook has helped me find others,” she said.

“None of them got into drugs but there have been problems of suicide, broken marriages and experiencing difficulty in bringing up their own children.

Ms Cuskelly still wonders why grandparents never seemed to visit orphanages.

“Where were they?” she asks.

Surely she had a family picture of herself as a child?

“No, not one,” she said.