The fallen girls – the full story

Dianne Dempsey | Bendigo Weekly | 05-Jul-2014 THE FALLEN GIRLS

PAIN: The Royal Commission may bring closure for some, but the sad memories of their time at St Aidan's will remain. Photo: Allan Doney.

St Aidan’s Orphanage has been seen historically as a benign, holy and bountiful presence on Bendigo’s skyline.

However, its magnificent gates and imposing architecture hide a story of sexual and emotional abuse, suicide, beatings and solitary confinement.

DIANNE DEMPSEY spent three months talking to and researching the stories of nine “fallen girls” who found themselves in the care of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Though many years have passed, the story and memories of their time at St Aidan’s remains all too vivid for those who suffered at the hands of a group of people who had seemingly lost their way.

Crippled by a lack of proper care (May 16, 2014)


KATHLEEN Coughlin, a second cousin of mine, spent her childhood and early adulthood in Bendigo’s St Aidan’s Orphanage.

As a young girl I remember her as a tiny, white-haired creature who lived in her sister’s house somewhere out the back.

When she heard the sound of children’s voices she would painfully make her way to the dark kitchen where the only light came from the glowing wood stove.

She would come in laughing and hopping on her crutches, and then gratefully lower herself onto her chair. Even as a little girl, I thought her story was beyond be- lief.

Cousin Kathleen and her sister, Nora, were first put into the orphanage when their parents were unable to care for them.

That was the way of it back in the 1920s. There was no social welfare net and the church responded to the call of the government by providing for the care of children who had lost a mother or a father or more rarely, both parents; economic hardship was also a common factor for children being put into orphanages.

Often family members would step in when there was a family crisis, but when they couldn’t, the good sisters of the church provided.

One day in the orphanage young Kathleen became ill. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was rampant at the time, she was put to bed. And there she stayed for 13 years – 13 years.

Her bed was on the third floor of the orphanage on a cold and drafty veranda. Nobody apparently thought to give her regular checkups and as the years passed, she became a fixture, like a picture on a wall, a cripple confined to bed.

A doctor happened to pass her by one day and out of sheer curiosity he asked what was wrong with Kathleen.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who ran the orphanage, told him she was a cripple. When the doctor examined cousin Kathleen he found nothing wrong with her; but she had been kept in the bed for so long that her legs had atrophied.

She was in her late 30s, and by the time she came home, had learnt to walk on crutches.

St Aidan’s is today preserved by the National Trust. Although no longer used as an orphanage it still stands on a hill imposing and majestical.

Everyone in our city is aware of its architectural imprint; that alongside the Sacred Heart Cathedral, St Aidan’s is one the two medieval-inspired buildings constructed by the Catholic church.

The money for both buildings came from the shrewd investments of the Reverend Henry Backhaus. A pioneer priest of the goldfields, Backhaus had a knack of buying and selling – well.

At the request of Bishop Stephen Reville, the Good Shepherd Sisters came to Bendigo in 1904 to set up the orphanage and care for Bendigo’s needy children. It was also the first orphanage of its kind to accommodate young boys.

The sisters modelled St Aidan’s on their Abbotsford convent. They set up the orphanage, a farm and orchard and, more critically, an industrial laundry to sustain the operation.

Also part of their charter was to protect women and girls at risk, commonly referred to as “penitents”.

Maryfields, the red brick building on the left hand side if you are standing at the front gates, was specifically built in 1930 to accommodate girls and women from the age of 16 upwards.

However according to several women interviewed for this article, girls as young as 11 and 12 were also housed there during the time of their stay in the early 1970s.

Historically, St Aidan’s has been seen as a benign, holy and bountiful presence in Bendigo. It is a view confirmed by Martha (who wishes to remain anonymous).

Now in her 80s, Martha, who was in the main part of the orphan- age, told me that the sisters were good and kind women who cared for the children as best they could.

When her mother had died and her father couldn’t look after his children by himself, the local priest told him he had to be realistic and place the children in the orphanage. Martha didn’t know anything about the girls on “the other side” who worked in the laundry.

“I think they were court girls, they had got into trouble,” she said.

She remembers the annual fete, a major fundraiser when the children were dressed up and visitors poured into the grounds.

When I told Martha about my cousin Kathleen, Martha told me she remembered her.

“It was one of our jobs to change her bed every day, she was always out there on the balcony,” she said.

When the convent closed in the early 1980s the Bendigo Advertiser published an obituary of sorts for the institution saying that, ”St Aidan’s will long be remembered for the devoted work done there over the past 75 years”.

But I could never forget Kathleen’s story. Whenever I drove past the imposing building I always thought of my cousin trapped in her bed and my curiosity peaked. What else happened inside that building behind the Gothic arches?

Some of the stories I discovered sound Dickensian in nature.

I interviewed several women who were sent there in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And I also refer to two published written accounts.

The women say that cruel beatings, solitary confinement, sexual abuse and emotional abuse were not unusual.

Common themes emerge: sadistic nuns, long hours of domestic drudgery, scrubbing floors, a scant education and laundry work.

It is a Gothic horror story, appropriate enough for the building which housed it.

It is the story of an institution, which was for many years deemed beyond reproach.

And it is the story of an order of nuns who turned in on themselves and for a time, lost their way.

Cruel games and physical abuse

IN her memoir Sins of the Mothers written with Amy Willesee (Pan Macmillan 2006) Donna Davis writes about her time at St Aidan’s in the 1950s.

There was a kind nun there, Mother Carmela, who was gentle and affectionate but Donna’s bete noir was another nun, who had as one of her special torments a cruel game of chasey in the dark.

The nun waited until late at night and called for the bed wetters or other girls who had misbehaved.

She would sit on a chair in the courtyard and tell them they must walk right around the entire orchard in the dark.

Donna would run and stop, sweat and cry and wet her pants, again. Bed wetting was not approved of in orphanages.

Donna had to stand in the courtyard in the morning with the wet sheet over her head.

Donna smelled so much be- cause of the bedwetting she had

The nun waited until late at night and called for the bed wetters... To sleep on the veranda where the wind came in through the louvre windows. The same veranda cousin Kathleen slept in.

One night Donna wanted to go to the toilet but was stopped by an older girl who was in charge of the bedwetters.

Before Donna could go past her, she had to masturbate the older girl.

The years pass, Donna is pubescent and gets her first period. It is an experience right up there with the shower scene of Stephen King’s book Carrie.

“One morning I wake up to find that my cold wet sheets are stained with red. There is blood and pee everywhere. I go beserk, crying and yelling, I’m dying! I’m dying!”

A nun rushes up to the distressed girl and gives her a whack with her stick.

She tells Donna that the bleeding is supposed to be a secret and “just the filth of the body working”.

EDITORIAL: A blighted life

THERE may be some Bendigo people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who will be offended by our feature story of St Aidan’s orphanage. It has long been part of our heritage landscape and an institution associated with the benevolence of the sisters of the Good shepherd.

The orphanage was established in 1905 by the sisters at the request of the Bishop of Sandhurst, Bishop Stephen reville.

It was a time when many Catholic families were struggling, and without the aid of a government welfare system, relied on the generosity of the Catholic church.

The sisters also relied on the wider community who would take care of the children during holiday times and also make a vital contribution to the annual fete.

Our investigation centres around events which occurred during the 1950s, 60s and 70s and it reveals many harrowing stories.

These stories were told in good faith by several women who are now aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

The women described a childhood blighted by their time at the orphanage.

Not only were they denied any recognition of the trauma of separation from their families, their treatment sometimes involved harsh and sadistic punishment.

They were treated as pariahs, as being unfit for the company of the community.

One of the women interviewed, Sandi Gamble, was 12-years-old when she was sent to the orphan- age by her mother for being naughty. As the doors of the convent were locked behind her, she was told by a nun it was to protect the “good people of Bendigo” from her. Sandi wasn’t placed in an orphanage dormitory but in the Maryfields section which was supposed to be for “fallen women”, “court girls” or “penitents”.

Maryfields also accommodated mentally ill and disabled women.

Sandi said girls as young as 11 lived there.

And like the older women, the girls were expected to work in the industrial laundry which the sisters ran in order to subsidise the cost of running the orphanage.

The girls worked in the laundry, which was often referred to as a Magdalene Laundry, before school, at lunch time and after school.

Their schooling was done by correspondence. When they weren’t working in the laundry they were often on their hands and knees scrubbing floors and if they were deemed to be slow or recalcitrant some were beaten with a heavy stick or sometimes put into solitary confinement.

Some of our interviewees lived in the orphanage section and one was made to wear a urine-soaked sheet over her head when she wet the bed.

Not all of the sisters were cruel, not all of the children suffered, but importantly, some of them did suffer and they suffered terribly.

We reveal these stories not to be vindictive or seek apology, but in the interests of truth.
Our history – Bendigo’s history – can only be our history if it embraces this truth.

Without the truth we live with illusions and fairy stories rather than history.

We also reveal these stories for the sake of the women who suffered all those years ago.

Many still suffer today. By denying their pain we deny their reality and perpetuate their pain.

The story of St Aidan’s will be running for several more weeks.

Sisters apologise (May 23, 2014)

THE Sisters of the Good Shepherd have apologised to former St Aidan’s residents for their “harsh treatment” while at the orphanage.

The Province Leader of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Sr Anne Manning, sent the apology to the Bendigo Weekly this week.

“I simply wish to say that the Good Shepherd Sisters have apologised in the past to any former residents who may have unhappy memories of harsh treatment during their time with us,” Sr Manning said. I repeat that apology here.

“We are always open to meet with and listen to any women who wish to talk with us about their experiences.”

To contact the Sisters of the Good Shepherd go to Towards Healing on 03 5023 6790 or email

For immediate support call Lifeline 131 114. For a variety of referrals contact the Royal Commision into Child Sex Abuse, 1800 099 340.

Alternatively call Open Place, 1800 779 379, the Support Service for Forgotten Australians.

Cries of past pain

DIANNE DEMPSEY continues her investigation into the fallen girls of Bendigo’s St Aidan’s Orphanage. Today she tells the story of Sandi Gamble, nee Forster.


NEGLECTED by her alcoholic mother and sexually abused by family “friends”, it wasn’t surprising Sandi was naughty at school.

“I had been expelled for truancy. My mother couldn’t cope with me anymore so she decided to send me to St Aidan’s as a boarder,” she said.

Sandi Gamble (nee Forster), 57, was placed in St Aidan’s on September 27, 1969 and left on December 18, 1972.

She has written a self-published memoir, Broken, which is available through

Now living in Queensland, Sandi has been organising re- unions of women who attended the convent, many of whom also worked in the laundry.

Sandi told me her story when she came to Bendigo in March for the third St Aidan’s reunion.

“I was 12 years old and I was picked up in Melbourne by Mother Rita and taken to the orphan- age. I can remember the sound of her keys and doors constantly being unlocked, and then locked behind me,” she said.

“Mother Rita said to me the doors were always locked to protect the good people of Bendigo from people like me.

“Even though I was a boarder, my mother paid for me, I was put in the laundry – on the other side, the bad girls’ side.”

Sandi slept in the Maryfields section of the convent, which was supposed to be for girls 16 years and older.

“We were referred to as penitents, fallen girls. And we were with other older women who were mentally and physically disabled in the same dormitory,” she said.

“Some of these women had been in the convent for so long that they were institutionalised. They had nowhere to go, so they simply stayed.

“We were always frightened we would end up like them, that we would never get out. At night time there was always crying and whimpering.”

Sandi worked in the laundry before school, at lunchtime and after school, she scrubbed and polished floors on her hands and knees – for four years.

She now suffers from problems with her knees, and other women have also sustained arthritic problems because of doing hard physical work at such a young age.

It was, she said, slave labour, and far worse than that which was experienced by the girls in the notorious Irish Magdalene laundries, as their Irish counterparts were generally much older.

The first day Sandi worked in the laundry she had to stand on a wooden crate and pull steaming sheets through a huge industrial steam mangle.

She constantly burnt her hands but she was cheered up by another girl who told her calluses would soon form and protect her from further pain.

When she made a mistake one day a nun came up behind her and whacked her on the head with her weapon of choice, a hand broom, which she kept in the folds of her habit.

“The smell of the laundry was sickening,” Sandi said.

“Laundry came from hotels, hospitals and boarding schools from across the state.

“We found all sorts of disgusting things among the linen and were expected to sort it out.

“As well, the heat in the tin building was often over 40 degrees in summer.”

Some of the girls had sisters in the orphanage section but they weren’t allowed to see them.

“They didn’t want us to infect the orphans or the ‘Holy Angels’ as they called them,” Sandi said.

“I used to keep watch out of the laundry door and if someone’s sister went by, I would stamp my foot on the floor so they could see them.”

Sandi said the girls learnt via correspondence.

“Mrs Raeburn was a baby sitter rather than a teacher. We filled in these books which were sent off to some mysterious place and then returned back to us with writing on them, which we rarely understood,” she said.

“We were constantly told to repent for our sins, to cleanse ourselves. We were told we were bad and that society didn’t need or want us.”

When Sandi had enough of the emotional and physical abuse she ran away, but terrified and alone she handed herself into the nun who had previously beaten her in the laundry.

“The next morning I was told to stay in my nighty and stay by my bed,” she said.

“The nun came into the dormitory and told me to scrub the showers with my toothbrush. I did what I was told, I spent hours doing it.

“She then came with a lackey, usually an older woman who had been in the orphanage for years. These older women just did what they were told.

“(The nun) pointed out a little spot on a tile that couldn’t be removed. ‘You are 12 years old and hopeless,’ she said to me.

“She beat me on my head and neck and back with her hand broom until I was blue with bruises.

“Then she turned on the cold water of the shower and left it running while I lay there crying.

“Finally, she turned the shower off and left me there. I huddled there for hours in my wet nighty in the shower, too scared to move, freezing. She was a cruel woman,” Sandi said, in what can only be a masterpiece of understatement.

Not long after Sandi was in the orphanage she became ill.

“I was sexually abused before I came to St Aidan’s,” Sandi said.

“(The same nun) took me to the Bendigo hospital, placed a chair at the end of the bed and watched while they gave me an internal examination.

“This was on the pretext that I needed a chaperone. But she had a good view. It turned out I had gonorrhea.

“When I got back to the orphanage, I was dragged along by my pony tail and she cut it off.”

One of the many jobs Sandi had to do was get down on her hands and knees and scrub and polish the Appian Way.

Named after the legendary Roman road, the Appian Way was a cloister that connected the main buildings.

“I hated that bloody Appian Way,” Sandi said.

“I wasn’t a ward of the state. The convent got money from the laundry, they had money from the government and money from my mother who paid for my board.

“But finally in the early 1970s (the brutal nun) was replaced by a reformist nun, Mother Katherine. She unlocked the gates and unlocked the doors.

“Mother Katherine saved us.

“I don’t know how (the other nun) could be so cruel. I heard that she was cruel to other nuns as well, and she was finally sent away in disgrace to work in a kitchen. I hope the story is true.”


The brutal nun is mentioned more than once in dispatches.

In an interview Maureen Cuskelly gave to the Goodweekend (December 2013) she says she was in St Aidan’s in 1964 when she 12 years old and stayed there until she was 17.

During the brutal nun’s reign solitary confinement was common.

“It was in a toilet locked from the outside,” Maureen said.

“Girls came out broken-spirited. One girl wrote ‘I love Elvis Presley’ on her arm and went in for three days. When the girls came out they were gone. They were cold, isolated, scared and threatened.”

Taking up the cause (May 30, 2014)

DIANNE DEMPSEY continues her investigation into the fallen girls of St Aidan’s Orphanage. Today she tells the story of Bendigo’s Michelle O’Donohue and how the Royal Commission is listening to former residents of the home and noting their claims of abuse.

The current Child Abuse Royal Commission has begun investigating allegations of abuse that occurred at Bendigo’s St Aidan’s Orphanage.

The Bendigo Weekly began investigating the claims about four months ago. The investigation continued during its series The Fallen Girls, which started at the beginning of May.

A Royal Commission spokesperson confirmed it had received sub- missions, and was hearing testimony, about incidents at the orphanage from the 1950s to 1970s.

Sandi Gamble, whose story featured in the Weekly, appeared before the Commission last week.

“I found the experience to be extremely helpful,” she said.

“For years I suffered from terrible depression and was very sick and I have only just started to feel better.

“I feel that after talking to the Royal Commission I have finally been heard.”

Ms Gamble said it was only after contacting the Commission did she realise the her treatment at the orphanage, which she said included emotional and physical abuse, was also considered sexual abuse.

“We had to wash our undies and then show the crotch to the nuns,” she said.

“They supervised us as we dressed and undressed.

“I think if you ask yourself ‘is that the way a mother would treat her own daughter’ then that is a good way to assess whether the abuse was of sexual nature.”

Ms Gamble spoke last week of being watched by a nun as she was treated for gonorrhoea.

“I know many women today who were badly treated,” she said.

“I’ve heard of terrible things that have happened.

“We are not after retribution, but we want recognition of what happened to us.

“The way we were treated should never happen again.”

Ms Gamble said she was helped in the Commission by Care Leavers Australia Network executive officer Leonie Sheedy.

Ms Sheedy said her organisation had received “many” complaints over the years from former St Aidan’s residents.

“That St Aidan’s has been the recipient of complaints may disappoint some people in Bendigo, but it should not surprise them,” she said.

The evidence put forward in the 2004 Senate Report, Forgotten Australians, also demonstrated abuse was rife in institutional home care across Australia.”

The report described convent laundries as prisons for girls forced into “slave labour” with poor living conditions and scant education.

There were eight Magdalene laundries in Australia, all run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, according to the report.

The “slave labour” was reported as a common way to raise money for the institutions.

Anyone who was sexually abused as a child while in the care of an Australian institution can share their story with the Royal Commission. It doesn’t matter how young or old they are, or how long ago the abuse occurred.

People can register their interest by contacting the Royal Commission:

Call: 1800 099 340

email: Send an email to contact@childabuseroyalcommission.

Write: GPO Box 5283, Sydney, NSW 2001.

CLAN can be contacted on 1800 008 774.  

A life without any love at St Aidan’s

DIANNE DEMPSEY continues her investigation into the fallen girls of St Aidan’s Orphanage. Today she tells the story of Bendigo’s Michelle O’Donohue.

“NO one cared,” Bendigo resident Michelle O’Donohue said. “You cried at night, you missed your mother, but nobody cared, you were not loved.”

Michelle and I had arranged to meet for coffee to talk about her experience of being an “orphan” when she was sent to the Abbots- ford convent as an infant and then to St Aidan’s in 1972.

“My impressions of being at the Abbotsford convent are those of feeling totally overwhelmed,” she said.

“I was three years old and completely lost. We were all mixed up in a dormitory together. The eldest girls were 18. There were 20 children to a room and one toilet.

“The younger ones used to tear their sheets up in the morning if they wet the bed, they obviously didn’t want to get caught.

“In the mornings there would be a fight over socks which were all kept in the one basket. I was the youngest. I could never find the elastic to hold up my socks.

“The little ones were lost. We were treated like sheep. No one showed us how to dress, how to eat.”


Michelle looks up from her coffee and cake.

“You don’t know how to do these things unless you are taught. Breakfast was a bowl of stale bread, in milk and sugar. I wouldn’t eat, I’d just sit there,” she said.

“At St Aidan’s I remember walking up stairs and endless corridors, the cold white marble of statues. You had to share everything. You had no private time. We were educated, fed and clothed but that was it, we were not loved.

“We were slaves. We came home from school to endless chores. Slippers were put right under our bed, so we would have to get on our knees and remember to pray.

“I remember one Sister cut off a girl’s hair because she couldn’t find her hair tie, I can still hear the sound of the hacking.

“We were allotted to holiday hosts. I remember waiting, they were late. I must have been agitated.

“I annoyed the Sister so much she slammed a glass on a bench and smashed it to pieces. I thought, ‘gee I’ve done it now.’ I always got extra chores, I was the black sheep.

“The son of the holiday host used to abuse me. You couldn’t speak up in the orphanage, nobody would believe you. You always got the blank stares.

“They implied we know who you are, where you came from, the finger pointed at you.

“My mum ran off when I was little. She was only 18, had three children within three years and wore a caliper on her leg because she suffered from polio.

“Her name was Patricia Florence Evans. Dad couldn’t cope. I don’t think the nuns had any respect or time for families.”

Michelle said the change from the smaller dormitories to residential care was better, but not much better.

“The nuns integrated us into orphan: families who lived in a cream brick building on the grounds,” she said. “We were looked after by couples. I remember one particular family very well. They had a son and a daughter. As well as their own income they were paid to take care of us. They were very well off.

“He was a business manager at the time. The two children were privileged.

“I had to do breakfast, lunches and then prepare dinner when I got home. I was the cleaner as well. The mother would start bossing me around as soon as I got home from school.

“I used to buy her fags for her. When I got caught by her for smoking she went off.

“She said, ‘You’re here because nobody wants you or loves you. She reinforced my inferiority. I was in my first year at St Marys and she was nasty and cruel.

“I was with my two siblings and she discriminated between us, the orphans, and her own children. It was a terrible time. Her children wanted for nothing but we couldn’t get a pair of new shoes.

“It was like a slap in the face every day. She made my position very clear. She was in her 30s, she verbalised my position very clearly.”

Girls tried to escape

Since running the series The Fallen Girls, the Bendigo Weekly has been contacted by many people who have some stories, both positive and sad related to St Aidan’s Orphanage.

One of the most poignant stories came from Dorothy (not her real name) who lives in Flora Hill.

In the mid 1930s, Dorothy’s parents owned a dairy farm which was on the periphery of St Aidan’s.

“In those days St Aidan’s was surrounded by farmland,” she said.

“One day out on the farm my father saw a group of frightened, young girls who cautiously approached him.

“They were crying and scared. They had run away from the laundry and didn’t want to go back.

“‘Please don’t take us back there,’ They were beaten and sometimes sent to bed without food they said to my father.

“They were just young girls and my parents were very shocked and concerned for them.

“I used to hear my father talking to my mother when I was supposed to be in bed. I was only about eight or nine at the time. I think it happened more than the one time. Mum and dad were visibly upset by what the girls had told them. And they were shocked by the sight of the girls.

“It was mainly about their treatment by the nuns. They were beaten and sometimes sent to bed without food.

“They were very frightened. They would say, ‘please don’t take us back. Help us.’ The other farmers may have had that experience but I don’t know that for a fact. My father always took them back, he didn’t know what else to do.

“I think some of them had younger children with them. It was very sad.”


Life in ‘the castle on the hill’

DIANNE DEMPSEY continues her investigation into the fallen girls of Bendigo’s St Aidan’s Orphanage.  Today she tells the story of California Gully resident Francine Callanan.

FRANCINE Callanan can still remember her ward of the state number, 11467.

Francine talked to me on the banks of Lake Weeroona on a fine Bendigo autumn day.

With her red hair she’s as Irish as they come; and not afraid to speak the truth, she’s gutsy too.

Francine said when she was first sent to St Aidan’s in 1969, she found it so grand and imposing that she told the children at the local Catholic primary school, St Therese’s, that she “lived in a castle on the hill”.

It was her older sister who later that day disabused her of the illusion.

“We live in an orphanage, stupid, we’re orphans,” she said.

As Francine’s grand illusion crumbled, so too did her defence against the prejudices of the children at St Therese’s and of most people she met. They despised her for her orphan status.

At St Aidan’s, Francine used to get hit by at least one sister.

“She was a big Amazon of a woman who walked around with a ruler all day to whack us with,” she said.

“I think back now and why would you expect these frustrated, childless women to have maternal instincts.

“They gave up everything in life and for a lot of them, I think we were the scapegoats for the disappointment of that sacrifice.”

Francine was eventually sent to a residential house which was in Kangaroo Flat.

“We went through three sets of parents,” she said.

“There were two sinks in the bathroom, one for us and one for the children of the parents. It was them and us. You knew your inferior status, you just sucked it up.

“The cottage system was better than St Aidan’s but I was abused by one of the foster fathers.

“I would listen for him every night. You were taught from a young age not to question anything. That was the way of it. That started in Year 7.

“I told my sister about it years later and she laughed. Her response was, ‘did you think you were special? He did it to all of us.’

“We were always vulnerable, if anyone showed us any affection, we responded to them.”

This series will continue next week. 


Boys of St Aidan’s (June 13, 2014)

DIANNE DEMPSEY continues her investigation into Bendigo’s St Aidan’s Orphanage. Today she tells the story of one of the boys who attended the orphanage.

When Robert casually picked up the Bendigo Weekly a few weeks ago and read the stories of St Aidan’s Orphanage he said he started trembling and was filled with anger.

“I threw the paper on the couch and said to my wife, ‘Look at that!’ The anger just welled up,” he said.


Robert (not his real name) went to St Aidan’s in 1949 when he was six and stayed there until he was nine and as he says, these are crucial years in a child’s life. The boys’ section at St Aidan’s was built in 1910.

“I saw terrible things there. So terrible I can’t drive past those gates, I take another route. It just makes me feel sick. The pain of the memories never leave you. I don’t remember any happy times,” he said.

“Mum put my brother and me in there for various reasons. One was that she had to work and there was no such thing as child care or welfare payments in those days.

“I remember the mornings, they were awful. Every morning another boy and I had to open the big gates in the dark and cold. Then I had to do my duties as an altar boy.

“Different priests said mass. One of these priests used to sexually abuse me. I don’t want to give any more details but it was a terrible experience to happen when you are young. Every morning I was scared. Scared of opening the gates in the dark and then scared when I went to the chapel, and the priest, and what waited for me there.

“The boys used to eat in the same section as the girls. I saw some terrible floggings there. One time a girl ran away and they caught her. “One of the nuns gave her a terrible flogging with a leather strap like you would never believe. She was brought into the dining hall by two sisters and made to stand there while she was flogged and flogged. We all felt sick in the stomach to see it. It still makes me sick to think about it.

“It’s not like you push a button and you forget. Sometimes I wish I had amnesia so I could forget. I’d be right then.

“Of a night you weren’t allowed to get a drink once you were in bed, so you wouldn’t wet the bed. On a hot night you would get dehydrated. So I used to get up and drink the toilet water as it was flushing. We were made to wear these strange clothes, made of felt I think, I’m not sure what the material was but it was very uncomfortable. And we were with older boys who had mental disabilities.

“When I got out I didn’t do well in school at all. I had no idea of family. I don’t think the nuns understood family. We had no idea of money, or work, or how to conduct ourselves in the world. We had an institutionalised mentality.

“Previous to reading these articles I was getting support from Open Place. I haven’t talked to many people about what happened. My wife knows but I am going to get more help now.

“Growing up I remember in the 1950s and 60s if you misbehaved the common expression was, ‘We will put you in the orphanage’. There was a reason for that.

“It was a horrible looking place, surrounded by paddocks in those days. It looked scary. It’s still painted that terrible blue colour.

“We knew about the girls in the laundry and we knew it was bad. We kids called it ‘the children over’.

“I know parts of the building burnt down, as far as I am concerned I’d be happy if the whole place had burnt down.

“For those people who complain about running these articles, I would say to them, ‘Did you live there? Did you go through what we went through? If you didn’t then you can keep quiet.’”

Our series will continue next week.

For immediate support call Lifeline 131 114.

Open Place 1800 779 379.

Child Abuse Royal Commission 1800 099 340.

The saddness remains (June 20, 2014)

Since running our Fallen Girls series we have been contacted by several people for whom the series has aroused bad memories of their time in St Aidan’s Orphanage. Here are two of those stories.

“Anne” who was born in 1947, used to sleep on the drafty verandah, that was considered so good for everyone’s health.

“I remember that verandah, I used to sleep there until I was 17 and a half,” Anne said.

“As soon as I saw the pictures I started shaking. I still have nightmares.

“I remember terrible times there. One day I was supposed to take a sick boy some junket to eat, I was 13, and I ate the junket myself.

“For my punishment I was dragged out of bed and taken to the boys’ dormitory where I had to kneel all night in my nightie and pray. If I bent over or fell asleep, I was beaten with a strap by a nun who sat in her chair all night and waited for me to fall over.

“In the morning I had welts all over my body.

“The children who had no one to watch over got all the dirty work. Me, I got a belting from the nuns all the time. I was one of four children and mum didn’t know where we all were.

“I remember that if a child ran away they would be caught and brought back. They would be made to stand in front of everybody and their heads would be shaved. We were made to laugh at them.

“I remember being on my knees all the time at a very young age scrubbing floors. My bones have been permanently affected from working so young.

“I remember standing around naked waiting for a bath. I remember standing in my undies while a nun, with one of the older women, fitted me for a bra.

“One of my more eerie memories was when an old nun died. We had to file past and kiss the nun’s face, it terrified me, I didn’t want to do it.

“I’ve never really spoken about this before but we were ill-equipped for the world.

“When I was 18 I had a baby which was adopted. They wouldn’t even tell me what I had. Many other girls would have been just like me. My first husband was violent. It was hard growing up.

“I think it is terrific that these stories have come out. Someone has to be responsible.”

“Sarah” is another lady for whom the series has brought back bad memories. Now 69, Sarah remembers being taken in the night and put in the back of a ute and driven to the orphanage.

She had no idea where she was going.

Sarah is sad that she can barely read and write.

”I was never taught properly. If you couldn’t learn, they didn’t want to know you,” she said.

“Because I struggled with my work I had to stay out of the classroom and polish the shoes and do other jobs.

“I wanted to learn but they wouldn’t let me. I used to try and teach myself but it was no good.

“I went to work when I was 13 and a half.

“My first husband was cruel and used to bash me.

“I had so many bad experiences I blocked a lot of them out. I remember lying in the dormitory at the orphanage of a night and looking at the picture of Jesus Christ with the Crown of Thorns on his head.

“Those sad eyes.

“I used to stare at him all the time and try to get some comfort from him and pray to him. That’s how I got through.

“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve still got a lot of sadness inside me.”

Next week we follow the story of the Maryfields women and what happened to several after they left St Aidan’s.


A Childhood regained by chance


Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, Francine was a resident of St Aidan’s Or- phanage. She wasn’t very happy there but she used to spend her school holidays with Beryl and Jim Monigatti and their family on their rochester farm.

Beryl’s children, Michael and Bernadette, were around the same age and loved having Francince staying with them.

But Francine always felt sad when it was time to return to the orphanage.

“She was a tiny little thing and had red hair. I re- member when we took her back to the orphanage she would sit in the back seat of the car and cry,” Beryl said.

“‘Please don’t take me back, I don’t want to go,’” she would say. “It would break my heart.

 “We wanted to adopt her but the nuns said she was moving back with her family,” Beryl said.

“I asked them to tell me if she was returned to the orphanage.”

In fact, after the relationship with her family broke down, Francine was indeed returned to the orphanage.

Unfortunately, the sisters didn’t tell the Rochester family of Francine’s return and rather than grow up on a farm she stayed in the orphanage.

But Francine was never forgotten. Over the years the Monigatti family kept on thinking about her and kept looking for her.

One time Beryl was told that Francine was working at Lansell’s Plaza. “I rushed out there only to be told that she had just left,” Beryl said.

“But then two weeks ago I read the Weekly and saw Francine’s photo. I couldn’t believe it. I cried and cried. We contacted Francine by phone and it turned out that she lived around the corner from me in California Gully. What is more my grandchildren were at Weeroona College while Francine was working there.

“It was a lovely reunion. We cried and hugged. We sat and talked for about three hours, we will never lose her again. I can die happy now. I won’t die wondering what hap- pened to her. She is with us now. She’s beautiful, she’s done so well.”

Francine rang the Weekly a week ago to tell us this extraordinary story.” “Something wonderful has happened,” Francine said.

“I have found a wonderful woman who used to look after me during schools holidays for more than four years. I have a whole new family; Beryl, her husband, their children, and grandchildren Katie and Mikaela and I even have a grand niece Laylah who is five months. It has been so exciting for me. I have been going around feeling warm and fuzzy.”

Such is the nature of a childhood spent in an institution, Francine has blocked out large parts of it. “But now I have my childhood back,” she said.

“I can remember staying on the farm and being chased by a chook which had a go at me.We ate it for tea that night and I thought the chook was being punished.”

While Francine has some blanks in her memory, Beryl is now filling them in for her.

Obviously it has been an emotional time for Francine but she said that during the years of struggle she helped and loved by friends, such as Meryl Hayes.

“It hasn’t been easy talking about my time at St Aidan’s but look what I have gained, this wonderful family.For immediate support call Lifeline 131 114.

Open Place 1800 779 379.

Child Abuse Royal Commission 1800 099 340 

The sisterhood of pain: what came next (June 27, 2014)

Over the past weeks we have chronicled the experiences of several women who lived at St Aidan’s Orphanage as young girls. Today, Dianne Dempsey tells us what happened to these girls when they left the convent.

Kathleen Couglin (deceased) Originally diagnosed with tuberculosis, my second cousin Kathleen was put to bed on the veranda of St Aidan’s for 13 years. She was in bed for so long that her limbs atrophied.

One day a doctor decided to give her a check up and pronounced her a very fit cripple.

It was decided that Kathleen, now in her late 30s, could go home and live with her sister but before that happened, Kathleen wanted to do one thing very badly.

She wanted to go Melbourne on the train and visit her special friend from the orphanage.

Her family thought the trip would kill her but in this matter she was determined. She went to Melbourne and had the trip of her life.

After Francine Callanan’s story was run in the Bendigo Weekly earlier this month, she gave me a phone call.

“You have no idea what has happened,” she said.

“I have found my second family, the people who cared for me as a little girl.”

But, on first leaving St Aidan’s, Francine dropped out of high school and hung out at the mall.

She was homeless for a while and slept at friends’ houses.

For many years she struggled with depression and worked in dead-end jobs.

She eventually trained to be a teacher’s aide at Bendigo tafe.

She lives with her partner in Bendigo and says of her two children, “I got my childhood back through them. Making play dough, reading and drawing together, cuddling them, giving them kisses, that’s what made me happy, made me whole”.

After being raised by the Sisters of the good Shepherd since she was three, Michelle O’Donohue was sent out into the world to fend for herself when she was 15.

“It was ‘see you later, you’re on your own now’,” she said.

A social worker placed her in a home in the Melbourne suburb of Jacana with a woman who Michelle greatly liked and admired.

“One day she came home and I was playing records too loudly with my friends,” she said.

“I was playing Alice Cooper. She kicked me out. She wouldn’t let me stay, although I begged and begged her. I cried so much I looked like the photo of Alice Cooper on the record cover with long black streaks of mascara running down my face.” Michelle lived a nomadic life working in a variety of jobs for many years.

“I always knew when to leave an abusive relationship,” she tells me proudly.

Settled back in Bendigo, she says she is happy and loves her life – her friends and family.

Michelle currently works in re- tail and is doing a computer course. She has a partner and three children who she loves.

In regard to her children she says, “I always do the opposite to how I was treated. I am a triumph over how I was brought up”.

Beverley Foster was placed in Maryfields as a 12-year-old, on September 27, 1969.

After three years of working in the laundry and harrowing, physical abuse, Beverley left St Aidan’s on June 12, 1972.

Not long after she left the orphanage, aged 16, Beverley had a child. Her boyfriend kept her a prisoner in her own home.

We were never cuddled, we had no affection.

When she was in hospital with her new baby he came to the hospital and beat her up there.

“The hospital staff had to keep him away,” she said.

Out in the world, Beverley said most of her St Aidan’s friends had problems building relationships with their own children.

“We were never cuddled, we had no affection. We didn’t know how to be good parents ourselves,” she said.

“And we were told never to speak about what happened, this stopped a lot of us from complaining about our past. I think they knew, the nuns, they knew what happened to us was wrong.”
“We had to find out for ourselves how to love,” Dot Foster-Hyndeman, 57, said.

“My sister who was in the children’s part of the convent committed suicide.

“We know quite a few girls who committed suicide. It was a loss of love.

“We just had to feel our way through life. We had no life skills. We had no idea of how to get on a bus or apply for a job.

“Most of us still suffer from clinical depression. Our childhood still upsets all of us.”
Cheryl, 56, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that when the orphanage was shut the girls tried to keep in touch with each other.

“We had no other family. But we have each other today,” she said.

That is their consolation, that they have each other, their unique allegiance – their sisterhood of pain.

For immediate support call lifeline 131 114.

Open Place 1800 779 379.

Child Abuse Royal Commission 1800 099 340.


We hear you (July 4, 2014)

The Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse is coming to Bendigo on July 23.

A spokesperson for the commission said they have so far received 21 reports of child sexual abuse.


These incidents are not necessarily confined to institutions within the City of Greater Bendigo.

The commission declined to say which institutions were involved. Two former residents of St Aidan’s told the Weekly they welcomed the commission saying that it would be invaluable help towards the healing process.

The visit will consist of two distinct parts. One will be a community forum to be held at the Bendigo Town hall on Wednesday, July 23 between 6pm and 8pm.

During the forum, the Royal Commissioner Justice Jennifer Coate will provide an overview of the work of the Royal Commission and answer questions from the community.

Royal Commission chief executive officer Philip Reed said the community forum was open to any members of the public who have an interest in the Royal Commission and encouraged people affected by child sexual abuse while in the care of an institution to attend.

“You will not be required to discuss your personal story at the community forum, it is a chance to find out more about the work of the Royal Commission and how you can be involved,” he said.

In addition to the community forum, private sessions will also be held on the following day,“ Mr Reed said.

“Due to demand, private sessions in Bendigo have been fully allocated, but we anticipate further private sessions will be held in the region in the future.”

Over the past eight weeks, the Bendigo Weekly has highlighted a number of instances of gross mistreatment, including sexual abuse, which occurred at St Aidan’s Orphan- age from 1948 to the late 1970s.

When contacted in March of this year, the Royal Commission said is was “aware of St Aidan’s Orphanage and the allegations of abuse which occurred there from the 1950s to the 1970s. At that stage no public hearing had been scheduled in Bendigo.

Sandi Gamble whose story was featured in the Bendigo Weekly, went to St Aidan’s in the early 1970s. Now living in Queensland, Sandi recently attended a private session in Queensland which was organised by the Royal Commission.

After years of people reacting in disbelief to her story and saying that the nuns were incapable of cruelty, Sandi at last felt vindicated.

“I felt I had been heard for the first time,” she said. “The private sessions are beneficial and worthwhile, cathartic and healing” she said.

The Royal Commission community forum will be hosted together with the Centre Against Sexual Assault – Loddon Campaspe. Executive Officer of CASA, Michael Beaumont-Connop said there has also been an engagement of young people with the agency.

“Sexual assault still continues across a number of institutions; it is not confined to the past but it still continues today.”

Because of the numbers of assaults which occurred both in the past, and which continue to occur, Mr Beaumont- Connop said he had been working with the Royal Commission for the past three months, encouraging them to come to Bendigo.

“Former prime minister, Julia Gillard, said that the commission should wrap up at end of 2015 but such is the ever increasing pressure on the commission, I can’t see it finishing before 2016,” Mr Beaumont-Connop said.

For inquiries you can contact CASA on 5441 0430 or the Child Abuse Royal Commission on 1800 099 340.

The women of Marylands

The residential, Maryfields section of St Aidan’s had different names over the years, some colloquial, others formal.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd first referred to the women who lived in Maryfields and worked in the Magdalene laundry as penitents – they were there to do penance for their sins.

They were also called the fallen girls; sent to the convent on court orders and considered to be in moral danger.

Some of the girls and women were physically and/or mentally disabled.

Some were as young as 11; others remained in Maryfields until they were old women and died.

Two of the women I interviewed for this series said as young girls they were terrified that they would never be allowed to leave Maryfields; that they too, would grow old and die within St Aidan’s walls.

In the orphanage side of the convent they called the Maryfields girls, “the children over”.

According to former Centa-Care director Paul Fogarty, who was also Maryfields chairman from 1999 to 2006, the care within St Aidan’s had been for two groups.

One group accommodated girls and boys aged six to 16; and the second section, Maryfields, housed girls and women from about 16.

That there is a discrepancy between the official position regarding the age of the girls who lived in Maryfields and the first-hand accounts of witnesses has been a reoccurring observation during the research for this series.

When St Aidan’s finally shut its doors in 1984, Mr Fogarty said there were 25 women left in the Maryfields centre.

Most were aged in their 40s to 60s and had been at St Aidan’s since they were infants or young children.

Nine of the Maryfields women were considered to be able to live independently.

Sixteen others were recognised as needing some intensive sup- port and supervision.

The Sisters of Good Shepherd provided support to enable the women to adapt to their new lifestyle in a secure way.

They gave this new activity the name of the Maryfields Centre, according to Mr Fogarty.

Centa-Care took over the work of Maryfields in 1988 and became responsible through a committee of management for the supportive welfare and care of the 16 women who were previously cared for by the Sisters of the Good

Shepherd in group homes in Bendigo.

At that time, funding was also secured from the Department of human Services to employ a support worker to co-ordinate the care needed for the ladies.

Prior to this time, these women had few decisions to make in St Aidan’s.

The sisters had ensured they received a basic schooling, but after this, many had jobs in the laundry and in the kitchen.

A few were given jobs outside St Aidan’s. All had been institutionalised to the detriment of their relationships with the broader community and their own independent capacities.

Seldom were there discussions held by them later in life about their experiences within institutional living.

According to Catholic Sandhurst Diocese Monsignor Frank Marriot, several of the women were extremely holy, having modelled their life on that of the sisters.

The Maryfields ladies were accommodated in homes or units within the Catholic parish boundaries of Kennington.

Some members of St Therese’s Catholic Parish Kennington be- came the ongoing members of the Maryfields board of management and each had a personal interest in the ladies and a deep sense of ministry for the wellbeingof the ladies.

Mr Fogarty said the lives of the women touched many who knew them.

”All they wanted was to be accepted individually as them- selves,” he said.

“Without awareness they taught other people about compassion, patience and generosity.”

The last of the Maryfields women died in 2013.

So what’s changed now?

IN a week where failures in childcare still make the news, Dianne Dempsey charts the lives of ‘the children over’ at St Aidan’s.

A counsellor and a former resident of Allambi’s Children’s home in the 1970s, Evelyn Chittleborough said that in another 20 years she didn’t want to see another Royal Commission and another apology made to the victims of government policy. “There still isn’t an answer to how we care for children in out of home care,” she said.

“Children who are vulnerable... Will continue to suffer”

“For years the government passed this responsibility onto the religious orders and then they failed to audit those organisations to see how the children were being cared for.”

This is a view that is in part supported by one of Australia’s leading experts in childhood trauma, Gregory Nicolau. The CEO of the Australian Childhood Trauma Group, Mr Nicolau said we have not made a lot of progress since the Forgotten Australians senate report of 2004.

He added that recommendations from inquiries are often not followed through. But he says it’s too easy to blame governments.

“Certainly Royal Commissions put the issue of abuse in out of home care on the front pages but you don’t see a lot of community concern for what happens to children. I’m hoping the current government and the community as well will stand up and say we have to get it right this time.

“It is true that there are simply not enough resources to go around but if society continues to buy the line that we should individually pay less taxes, then those children who are vulnerable through no fault of their own will continue to suffer.

“It is still not uncommon to see run down residential units across Australia,” Mr Nicolau said. “Things are broken, and the processes and protocols lead to delays if not years in some cases for things to be repaired. The residential carer may take the view that if the children have broken furniture they just have to live with it. As well some children are in foster homes where the care is not optimum.

“Having said that there are some heroic people working in group homes, residential units and as foster parents.”

Mr Nicolau said the essence to understanding how to best care for children lies in understanding the impact of childhood trauma and attachment disruptions.

“At times I feel desperate that the community does not understand the impact of trauma and broken attachments on children,” Mr Nicolau said.

“There is plenty of research out here that tells us that children suffer psychological, physiological, emotional and spiritual damage when they experience separation from their parents, even as babies. This trauma is compounded when they then witness family disruptions such as domestic violence.

“The brain itself suffers neurological damage. A baby relies on its own actions to get attention, to be fed and held, it cries.

“In older children and adults if that stress is not resolved, it becomes toxic. The brain goes into survival mode.

“The imperative for a young person is safety and if they don’t feel safe, they will act out or become disruptive.

“Children show their wounds through their behaviour. They are saying I’m scared, lost confused, ashamed etc. Make me safe. Help me.

“Carers need to respond by helping to regulating the child’s emotion- al state and strengthen connections. When kids become disruptive they need to put water on the fire rather than fuel the fire.”

Mr Nicolau said he has worked with out of home care agencies for more than 20 years and time and time again he sees staff given blunt tools to do microsurgery.

“These traumatised children need people who are highly qualified experts. This means that a lot of money has to be spent, and if that’s the case then so be it. I often use the analogy that you wouldn’t put a nurse with a Cert IV qualification into an ICU unit. And if I were to continue the analogy of nursing with the development of out of home care, then the starting date would be about 1910. We are still in the dark ages as far treating traumatised children are concerned.”

EDITORIAL: Lives changes

When the Weekly first began its Fallen Women series in May, there was an initial outcry of indignation.

Many people in the Bendigo community were in denial.

How could the sisters of the Good shepherd be capable of harming their charges, the vulnerable orphans and the “fallen women” who were in their care?

If the public response was not one of disbelief it was along the lines of “these things occurred in the past why bring them up now?”

Jack Thompson, the actor who was adopted as a young boy, is worth quoting on this point.“If we do not recognise the fundamental inhumanity and cruelty... Awfulness carried out in the name of God and goodness, then we will ignore the fact that it didn’t happen in the last century, it happened in this century and in many parts of our society continues to happen. Let us look at this thing in the face; let us deal with it.”

We were soon vindicated for running the series as each week former residents of St Aidan’s came forward with their harrowing stories.

Encouraged to discover they were not alone in their experiences, the numbers of people who contacted us exponentially increased as the series continued.

These people not only talked to the Weekly but we believe several former residents will be attending the Child Abuse Royal Commission which will be coming to Bendigo later this month.

Another outcome of the series was a letter of apology which was sent to us by the Province Leader of the sisters of the Good shepherd.

It reads in part, ”The Good Shepherd sisters have apologised in the past to any former residents who may have unhappy memories of harsh treatment during their time with us. I repeat that apology here”.

Finally the series logically lead us to examine, in this issue, the state of out of home care in Australia today.

According to our research the problem is still not fixed. Children continue to suffer today and young people will also be among those approaching the Royal Commission when it comes to Bendigo.

Over the past few months we have sometimes felt we were running a welfare agency instead of a newspaper. We have been mindful of listening to people in a responsible and caring way and made sure they were aware of the agencies available to help them such as the Care Leavers Australia Network who assist people who are attending the Royal Commission (1800 008 774).

The last words on St Aidan’s belong to the two women who most recently contacted us.

Michelle Callanan said that it was important for the people of Bendigo that they realised what happened to literally hundreds of children in their midst.

While Michelle gave graphic details of physical beatings, a nun once kicked her in the head with her boot, she said the psychological damage was on-lasting. “It affects you completely throughout your whole life. You lose your childhood, you blank entire periods out. You don’t develop,” she said.

And there was Linda Newton’s testimonial. Linda, from Golden square, said that she hadn’t spoken to anyone before about her St Aidan’s experiences, but after seeing the stories, felt encouraged to come forward.

Linda too was beaten, pushed under the bath water; made to stand with a wet sheet on her head and drag her wet mattress around behind her. She had her hair cut off and was locked in a dark cellar for long periods of time.

“I’m still afraid of the dark to this day,”she said. It sounds too cruel to be true, but sadly Linda’s testimony is consistent with many other stories we have been told.

When asked if she wished to remain anonymous, Linda replied that she wanted to use her own name. “I made a close friend in the orphanage, it was in the 1950s, and I still think of her,” she said. “Her name was Rhonda.

Perhaps she will read this article and get in touch with me.”  


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