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Good Shepherd Sisters denying history

By Adele Chynoweth - posted Wednesday, 19 June 2013


The recent claims, by lawyer and lobbyist Bryan Keon-Cohen, that the Catholic Church is a law unto itself in its resistance of governmental responses to child abuse, could be applied to Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.

On the 22nd of this month, Good Shepherd, an organisation established by the Good Shepherd Sisters has scheduled a Festival at Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne in order to celebrate 150 years since the Good Shepherd Sisters arrived in Australia. The problem is that the summary, by Trish Carroll, Good Shepherd Mission Leader, of the history of the organisation, conveniently excludes the work of the Sisters in the twentieth century. So allow me to fill in the resounding gap.

There are no precise figures for the number of girls who slaved in the eight Magdalene laundries, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, in twentieth century Australia because Good Shepherd has not released their records. We do know, as a result of the Federal Senate reportForgotten Australians (2004) that the Good Shepherd laundries in Australia acted as prisons for the girls who were forced to labour in workhouses laundering linen for local hospitals or commercial premises. The report alsodescribed the conditions as characterised by inedible food, unhygienic living conditions and little or no education. In 2008, in Federal Parliament, Senator Andrew Murray likened the Convent of the Good Shepherd 'The Pines', Adelaide to a prisoner-of-war camp.

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Post-war Australia was categorised by a new era of nation building led by the conservative Robert Menzies as Prime Minister. There was a perceived need for strict discipline for juveniles. Children could be placed in juvenile detention centres despite not having committed a criminal offence. Further, during this period there was a concern that 'sexually depraved girls' could be a cause of delinquency and therefore needed to be separated from the mainstream. As a result of these attitudes, many vulnerable children were criminalised.

Rachael Romero, at the age of 14 in 1967, was incarcerated in 'The Pines' for running away from her violent father who had sexually abused her. Rachael could not speak about it publicly for forty years because the Good Shepherd Sisters had branded her as 'fallen' and so Rachael had felt besmirched as a result of the abuse that she had endured. Wendy Sutton was admitted to 'The Pines' at the age of 13 having suffered physical abuse at the hands of her stepfather and having been sexually molested by a friend of the family.

Janice Konstantinidis was sent, by whom she describes as her 'sadistic alcoholic father' at the age of 12 to work in the laundry at Mount Saint Canice, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters in Tasmania. Janice remembers the girl who broke her back in an escape attempt by jumping through a window. The girls were told later that after being discharged from hospital that she was sent to Lachlan Park Hospital, a secure mental asylum.

Maureen Cuskelly was sent to Abbotsford Convent at the age of three because her mother was suffering from a mental illness. Later at the age of 13, in 1968, she was sent to work in the laundry at St Aidan's Bendigo, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. When she left, at the age of 17, her hands were damaged from years of repetitive sheet folding, in the afternoons, and her being forced to clean floors with an industrial polisher every morning.

The Good Shepherd Festival at Abbotsford this month also includes a 'ReunionAfternoon Tea for all former residents of Good Shepherd institutions'.

I asked Maureen if she would be going, "I don't know about that. There is not one plaque at Abbotsford about us. It's all about them. They make me so mad. There has been no apology. No acknowledgement".

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"I went to a reunion before and they say 'The nuns did their best at the time'. But they didn't do their best. They were cruel. We were always hungry and cold. Girls were beaten or locked on their own in dark cells. But the worse thing they did was not let me see my brother and sister in the other section of the Convent. I got punished for waving at them".

The Senate Inquiry into Forgotten Australians (2004) revealed that the abuse of children continued throughout institutions because a nation espoused an uncritical admiration of the work of charities and churches. Who was watching those charged with the care of Australia's vulnerable children? We can take account now. Many Forgotten Australianshave fought emotional adversity and physical scars or injuries to participate in a society that abandoned them as children. Our history needs to acknowledge the causal factors that produced such adversity so as to deflect the shame and stigma from survivors. Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, whose slogan is "Justice, Compassion, Reconciliation, Respect, Dignity" can assist this reparation by focusing less on their public relations campaign, more on writing an authentic record and through the initiation of a genuine reconciliation process with former child slaves of their twentieth century laundries.

Maureen reminds us the significance of the current Good Shepherd's edited history, "They're burying what they did. They're burying our history. They're burying the truth".

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About the Author

Dr Adele Chynoweth co-curated the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions which will be hosted by the Melbourne Museum from 29 August 2013 – 27 January 2014. Adele is currently a Visitor in the School of History at the Australian National University where she was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Media Award in 2012. She has presented her research at the conferences of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums in Liverpool UK in 2011 and the 2013 International Institute of the Inclusive Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark in 2013.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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