January 3rd, 2018 | Melissa Davey | The Guardian
For the past five years Leonie Sheedy travelled around Australia urging survivors of childhood sexual abuse in orphanages and foster care to tell their stories to the child abuse royal commission. She was the vocal and visible presence outside the commission’s public hearings, confronting politicians and holding placards. She stood in the glaring sun and pouring rain protesting against the leaders and institutions who failed children, demanding stories of abuse be recognised.
But despite imploring survivors of abuse not to take their stories to their grave, it took the 63-year-old until the commission had almost finished its work in December to tell her own harrowing story of being abused while in care at the Sisters of Mercy St Catherine’s Children’s home in Geelong.
“I’d say I’ve supported over 100 people to tell their story, and the oldest person I supported at the commission was 93,” Sheedy told Guardian Australia, following the tabling of the royal commission’s final report in December. “What happened as a result is I recognised I needed to ask for my own private session with the royal commissioners to tell my story.”
But each time the commission rang her to say a commissioner was available to hear her, Sheedy put them off. “I’d say: ‘Surely there are other people than me you can listen to first that are older and sicker that need to go first’,” she says.
Eventually, unable to delay the commission any further, she told her story to its chair, Justice Peter McClellan, in October, just weeks before the commission’s work ended. While she believes the process was cathartic for most survivors, she also knows firsthand how hard it was to take that step.
“I said to Peter: ‘I’m not going to cry.’ And he said: ‘Well if you’re not going to cry I’m not going to cry either’.” It is too difficult for her to repeat what she told McClellan in that session. Sheedy will say only that when she was 14, the son of a holiday host who took her away from the orphanage for a break “got at me”, and that she endured horrific physical abuse in the home.
Sheedy became a ward of the state along with two of her sisters when she was just three, and stayed in the orphanage until she was 16. She was one of 6,000 Victorian children in care in any given year in the 1960s, though poor record-keeping means the total number is difficult to calculate. Sheedy was relinquished to care, she realised as an adult, because her parents were poor and neglectful, had too many children, and her father was an abusive alcoholic. She did not understand this as a child though, and grew up thinking she was in care because she was “bad”.
Sheedy was the second-youngest of seven siblings. She also has two half brothers. She didn’t know many of her siblings growing up – her older siblings had also been put into orphanages before she was born. She was mostly separated from her sisters, who were placed in different sections of the orphanage, and she remembers sobbing as her older sister Pat was driven away in a black car from the home when she turned 14. Sheedy was six, and recalls being told by a nun to “stop blubbering” as she watched her sister leave.
“I knew I also had an older brother, Anthony, because when he left care he began to visit us in the orphanage … and he used to bring us lollies and fruit,” Sheedy says.
“Even with his intellectual disability, he still cared about us. We saw him for a couple of years, and then he stopped coming, and I didn’t know why.”
Her brother was struggling with his own issues including alcoholism, having been abused and raped in care, something Sheedy did not know at the time. It would be more than 40 years until she would see him again and he would finally share his story. In the meantime, Sheedy was forced to scrub floors in the orphanage and was beaten for wetting the bed and other “misbehaviours”. Floggings were common.
She left care at 16 years, when she was driven from Geelong to Melbourne, given a suitcase of government-issued clothing, and left to fend for herself. She didn’t know how to do practical things, such as budget or read a map, and she often found herself lost in the city.
She married her husband Warren when she was 19, and they had three children. Sheedy credits her husband for much of her strength, saying he has stood steadfast by her side, supporting her as she has done her advocacy work and as she has come to terms with her own abuse.
But it was a newspaper ad in 1992 that would change the course of Sheedy’s life and cement her role as an advocate for those abused in orphanages and foster care. Dr Joanna Penglase, a sociologist who also grew up in out-of-home care, published the ad in 150 newspapers which asked: “Did you grow up in a children’s home?” and gave people a number to call. She was conducting research in an effort to understand the lives of those who grew up in orphanages, a topic that remains little researched in Australia.
Sheedy’s husband urged her to respond to the advertisement, and a friendship with Penglase was born. Eight years later, Sheedy and Penglase co-founded the Care Leavers Australasia Network (Clan), an independent body that represents, supports and advocates for people who were raised in Australian and New Zealand orphanages, children’s homes and foster care. Today, it has about 1,000 members. As part of her role with Clan, Sheedy travels throughout the country helping survivors to tell their stories and find their birth and care records, and sometimes, their families.
Sheedy was an expert in the difficulties in chasing records for care leavers because for years she had been trying to track down her own brothers and sisters, calling jails where too many abused people ended up, searching libraries, and requesting government documents with varying success. Her meetings with those siblings she found were not always the happy reunions she had hoped for; they too had their own stories of abuse and memories that were too hard to relive.
In 2005, Sheedy managed to track down her older brother Anthony, who used to visit her in the orphanage with his offerings of lollies and fruit. She had found his address with the help of the Victorian government, but letters to him went unanswered. What Sheedy did not know was that he had difficulty reading and writing, and was unable to respond. Her brother had been living in a Brotherhood of St Laurence flat in Fitzroy, Melbourne, providing free labour like dishwashing for the nuns, and he had few belongings. Eventually, someone helped him to read the letters and he called Sheedy.
“He was living a hobo’s existence,” Sheedy recalls. “I found his state ward file and I saw that nobody cared about him.” That file revealed he had been in nine different orphanages since being placed into care at age two in 1944. He left care at age 19. His file states that as a young child he was tested for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
“Had he been looked after properly he could have had a better life,” Sheedy says. “When I first met him he used to smoke in bed, he lived in a dive, and he didn’t even have a fridge. I bought new sheets that day and I put them on the bed. I bought him a vacuum cleaner and fridge and a table and chairs.
“He said to me: ‘Don’t ever lose me again.’”
Despite his intellectual disability her brother had a sharp memory. He taught himself to read by buying the Herald Sun, and could recall facts and figures from stories he had read months earlier, especially from crime stories. He began visiting Sheedy where she was living in Sydney, and volunteering at Clan. He had lost most of his teeth and was also a heavy smoker, but Sheedy encouraged him to care for himself.
And then one day, shortly after they reunited, her brother began to tell her about his abuse. He was raped by multiple abusers, including a senior Christian Brother and other boys at St Augustine’s boys’ home in Geelong. He was also sexually abused by staff at the Bendigo Training Centre. Sheedy sat at her computer and typed his story for him as he spoke, word for word. That document was submitted to the federal government’s 2005 inquiry into abuse in institutional care.
“I don’t ask for much, because of I am too shy,” his story reads, “but I am now coming out of my shell. But when I first meet Leonie I wouldn’t tell a soul about my secret for 37 years ‘cos I was ashamed to tell anyone, I kept it for myself.
“There still more to tell Leonie … I can’t bring myself to tell her because I will break down … There are a lot of gaps missing from my file and I have a lot of questions to ask of the Victorian government and the Australian government.”
With her brother’s permission, Sheedy got lawyers involved and sought redress for him through the Victorian government and the Catholic church, which ran some of the institutions he was abused in.
As this was going on, she planned her brother’s first birthday party after finding out he had never had one. He was due to turn 70 on 28 November 2011, and Sheedy went all out. Her brother was a Frank Sinatra fanatic, and she organised to have Sinatra-themed birthday banner and cake. She invited their friends from Clan, and the Labor MP Richard Marles, for whom her brother sometimes volunteered.
In June 2011, months before his 70th birthday, Sheedy received the letter they had been waiting for: notice from the Victorian government that it had set a date for his compensation settlement to be heard.
Sheedy rushed to her home where her brother was staying but she was greeted by ambulances. He had died of a heart attack, age 69.
“Anthony died on 22 June 2011 without justice and without redress,” Sheedy says.
They held his party in November anyway, paying tribute to him and his few happy years with his family. In a tribute recorded in Hansard, Marles described him as “cheeky and fun-loving”.
“He loved the Geelong Football Club and loved Frank Sinatra,” Marles said. “It was wonderful that he was able to be here on the day of the apology [to care leavers]. Very sadly, within two years of that day, he passed away … Today Leonie keeps fighting for compensation, something which must be given, and for services … Leonie Sheedy is a national treasure. To her, I say: thank you.”
Sheedy balks at claims of her being a national treasure, instead highlighting the work of those around her that led to the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announcing a royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse in 2012. It is the brave people who told their stories of being abused and women like Penglase who deserve credit, she says.
The commission’s work is now over but Sheedy says her work is far from done. The commission tabled its final report on 15 December and Sheedy says on the 15th of every month, Clan will be releasing an update of how many of its recommendations have been implemented. Staff at the prime minister’s office know Sheedy’s voice well, so often does she call demanding answers about redress for abuse survivors and action on the royal commission’s 400 recommendations.
“What we’re going to do is remind every state and territory government and the federal government, and every church and charity, every month, that we won’t allow our stories to be forgotten,” she says.
“Older care leavers in particular need redress now to make their later years more comfortable and liveable, they need to be able to pay for their funerals, to get their teeth fixed and have some good things in their life before they die.
“I feel that there is so much work to be done.”
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