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Real Life

Real life: I escaped Australia's worst orphanage

The nuns were meant to be looking after us, not ruining our lives.

By Take 5 team

Yvonne Radzevicius, 76, Perth, WA shares her terrifying tale;

The nun's face was red with fury as she approached me.
"Tell me who said it!" she raged.
I was only 13 and living at Nazareth House, a home for orphans, in Geraldton, WA.
The nuns that ran it were wild and unpredictable.
The one standing in front of me had heard one of the girls was speaking ill of her and she wanted to find out who the culprit was.
"I don't know," I stammered.
She didn't like that.
She pushed me with such force I thought I was going to fall.
I reached out my hand, grasping for something to steady me.
Accidentally, I snatched off her veil.
The worst thing you can do to a nun.
She became so angry she threw me against a window with such force that a sea of glass exploded over me.
To my amazement, I escaped with only a few cuts.
But there was no avoiding the abuse that had become a daily occurrence for me and the girls who lived there.
Me in the mid 1970s. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
This sort of torture was all I'd ever known.
At just nine months' old, I was sent to the Sisters of Nazareth in Glasgow, Scotland.
"Why don't I have a mummy and daddy?" I asked a nun when I was older.
"They're dead," she replied coldly.
"Do I have any brothers or sisters?" I asked hopefully.
"No," she snapped.
Sneering, she told me I was illegitimate, too.
"It means you're a bastard because your parents weren't married," the older girls taunted.
I felt ashamed, worthless.
When I was nine, one of the nuns said I was going to live in Australia.
"Nobody will miss you, Mahairi," she added.
I was given a suitcase with my belongings: two dresses, singlets and underwear.
It was marked Y. L. O'Donnell.
"This isn't mine," I said, wondering why my name wasn't written on it.
"Yes it is," the nun snapped. "You're called Yvonne now."
After a four-week voyage with 20 other girls, I arrived in Australia and was sent to the Geraldton orphanage.
We were constantly told nobody wanted us.
Bedwetters were humiliated by having to wash their own sheets and hang them out.
Just looking at a nun the wrong way led to punishment, like being forced to spend the night on the cold bathroom floor.
At 14, I left school and was put to work in the convent kitchens from dawn to dusk without pay.
One of my duties was to fill the coal scuttle.
A man in his 50s worked in the coal cellar.
Nazareth House was sheer hell. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
As I was filling the scuttle he brushed past me, his hands touching my breasts.
I ignored it at first, but the next time, he grabbed hold of me and stuck his hand up my skirt.
"I'm going to tell the nuns," I yelled, wriggling free.
"They won't believe a girl like you," he scoffed.
Sadly, I knew he was right.
I was more likely to get punished than believed.
I tried to avoid him after that, but he repeatedly caught and groped me.
It was disgusting and made me feel dirty.
One time, I was trapped alone with him and he started masturbating.
I was terrified.
He wasn't the only pervert.
Another man who worked at the convent assaulted me numerous times, too.
As soon as I could, at 17, I left the orphanage and trained to be a nurse.
When I asked the church for help in tracking down any surviving family in Britain, they couldn't produce my records.
So I tried to make a new life for myself.
I met a man, Albert, got married and had two girls.
I loved my daughters, but couldn't show it.
"Nobody ever gave me love," I choked to Albert. "I don't know how to do it."
Even hugging them was hard for me.
All I knew was strict discipline.
Incredibly, when I was 33, I was tracked down by a woman called Ellen Bryce.
I found it hard to show my daughters love. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
It turned out she was my godmother and had been trying to find me for years.
Your mum and dad are still alive, she wrote in a letter.
I wept tears of joy.
You've got five siblings, she added.
Three sisters and two brothers.
And I wasn't illegitimate either.
I learnt that my mum and dad had been married when they had me.
It felt like the stigma and stain I'd carried my whole life had been washed away in mere seconds.
My mum, Bridget, had given me to the orphanage because she was an alcoholic and couldn't cope.
My siblings were fostered out.
Before I could get back to Britain to see my family, my dad died.
Then my marriage broke down.
Years passed before I finally returned.
It took me another year to find Mum.
She'd been homeless and moved a lot, but I eventually found her in a filthy London bedsit and went to see her.
"Oh my God, my baby," she gasped when she heard my new name, Yvonne, for the first time.
She was in a terrible state.
She'd lost a leg, was sick with tuberculosis and still drinking heavily.
"I must have done some good in my life if my children have come to find me," she wept.
She'd been lied to as well.
"The church said you'd been adopted by a good Catholic family in Queensland," she cried.
My mum, Bridget. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
I had her admitted to hospital, but she was soon back on the streets.
Then I got a call from the police. She'd been found dead.
The second time I saw my mother was to identify her body.
It was terribly sad but I was glad to have finally met her.
Desperate to rebuild my life, I stayed in Britain for the next 18 years.
I managed to reconnect with one of my sisters, Joan.
I've reconnected with my sister Joan (left). (Image exclusive to Take 5)
The two of us stay in touch through Facebook but given my upbringing, it's been hard for me to create and sustain close relationships with others – including my own children, who I don't see very much.
I'm the first to admit I could have been a better mother – I just didn't know how.
The one good thing that's come from my time in the orphanage is that all the abuse kids like me suffered is finally being recognised.
I'm glad the abuse I suffered is now being recognised. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
I recently gave my testimony to investigators from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, along with other brave adults who'd spent much of their lives too terrified to speak out.
We might receive compensation but that doesn't mean much to me.

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