Real Life

I was tortured by nuns

Abuse survivor Ann Thompson has put decades between her horrific childhood in Catholic orphanages and life today as a wife, mother and grandmother, but the demons of that nightmare past still haunt her.

“Sometimes I feel like a 12-year-old girl living in a woman’s body – an old woman’s body at that,” she says. “oy spine is twisted and arthritic because I was thrown against the walls of the playroom again and again as a child and I’ve got arthritis in both hips as well. Because of all the slaps across my face and head with nuns’ fists or sticks, I have chronic earache – the pain is like a hot needle.”

The daily brutality of life at St Joseph’s Catholic orphanage and Nazareth House, both in Christchurch, was supposed to rid Ann of the “evil” that the nuns said was in her because she was the unwanted baby of an unmarried teenager. But it was not the only ordeal inflicted on Ann during her 15 years in church care. As well as constant mental and physical torture, she was sexually abused as a toddler by female helpers at the orphanage and again by a priest as a vulnerable young teen.

With so much pain in her past, it’s only now that Ann is able to bravely reveal her ordeal in her heartbreaking and frank memoir Say Sorry. Now 61, Ann says it was the little girl inside her that started talking when she began to document the events of her childhood for the book.

Revisiting the experiences was an agonising process for the Whangarei-based mum-of-four because, along with the lingering physical pain she must endure, deep psychological scars also remain.

Ann was left at St Joseph’s orphanage for Girls when she was two months old and the abuse began while she was still just a small girl. “I was only five when one of the nuns first began dragging me by my hair or by my ears from wherever I was hiding,” recalls Ann in her book. “She would put me in a sack, tie the top and tell me the pig man was coming to take me away.”

With no-one to confide in and knowing only abuse, it wasn’t until Ann met her husband Brian in 1965, that she began to reveal her terrible secret. “He couldn’t understand how the men and women of God could do this,” says Ann. “Then he started saying that they must also have been abused when they were little. I said, ‘Don’t ever say that.’ There was no excuse. They were grown-ups. They knew right from wrong and they should never have treated children that way.”

After Ann and Brian’s first child was born in 1966, the new parents moved to Whangarei. But even with the fresh start of a loving marriage and later, four children of her own, the legacy of Ann’s upbringing continued to plague her.

“There was a time where I couldn’t stand anyone touching me or coming near me. I had nightmares where I’d find myself sitting up in bed and belting my husband. He had to go to another bedroom. From then on, I started locking the door and putting the key in my drawer. I still get nightmares even now.

“I was also frightened when I had my kids because I didn’t know how to look after them. I spent most of my time at Plunket because I was scared I might get it wrong and hurt them.”

But motherhood also brought new peace and insight to Ann. “It wasn’t until I had my babies that I realised what the love between a mother and a child is like,” she says.

Ann has sought help from numerous counsellors over the years, but the process of revisiting that early trauma has often proved too painful. Even though she can barely bring herself to visit a church, she has held on to her faith. “I have a saying that helps me, which is, ‘You can abuse my body, you can abuse my mind but you cannot take my soul – that belongs to God.'”

Even though she has received apologies from Catholic bishops of Christchurch and a financial settlement from the church, Ann wants all offenders brought to justice. “I will not accept an apology from the Pope until he sends all the priests and nuns who have abused people back to the countries where they committed their crimes and stops hiding them in Rome. I won’t accept his sorrow because to me they’re just empty words.”

In writing Say Sorry, Ann hopes to provide strength to other abuse victims who are thinking of coming forward. “I hope they will know they’re not alone,” she says. “If I’d understood things earlier I would have got help. I’m sure I had a breakdown in the past but didn’t realise it at the time. Back then I didn’t even know the word ‘abuse’. I thought I was being punished for something I’d done wrong. Since I spoke out I’ve felt so relieved.”

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