Orphan’s anguish at hands of nuns at Neerkol facility
WHEN Theresa Whitfield heard the girls' dormitory at the abandoned Neerkol Orphanage had burnt down, she felt relief that verged on sheer delight.
The two-storey brick building was a prison of pain during the "10 horrible years" she spent there in the 1950s.
Theresa (nee Gillon) was one of hundreds of thousands of British children who were shipped to Australia and housed in church-run institutions.
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She was just seven years old when she first set foot on the rural setting of Neerkol outside Rockhampton.
She quickly realised that she and the other young residents were at the mercy of the nuns and priests who ran the institution.
And mercy, it soon became clear, was something that was sadly lacking.
"You learnt to fear them very early. When they made up their mind to do something, your screams went unheard," said Theresa, 72, from her Gold Coast home.
"Nobody interfered, nobody cared. As long as you could work your guts out, that's all they worried about."
Her voice quavered before she started to detail a litany of alleged horrors perpetrated against the residents.
Girls "belted black and blue" for no good reason, boys forced to sleep on a potato sack on the veranda in the dead of winter if they dared wet their bed, the big boys allowed to "bash your face in" if you spilled a bit of cocoa.
But nothing could prepare you for Theresa's next harrowing account.
At age 11, she suffered a cut to her leg. The nuns were charged with treating it and Theresa was expected to turn up early in the morning to have it treated.
Her demanding workload meant she did not make one morning appointment. Instead, she turned up in the afternoon.
"The nun slapped my face and said I should bathe it in hot water. She got one of the boys to get boiling water from the urn.
"I could see the steam coming off the water. I begged her not to ..."
Her voice trailed away.
She resumed the conversation to explain her leg was left an ulcerated mess after it was plunged into boiling water.
Months on and another nun, a novice, decided it would be best to encase the leg in plaster.
That worsened the situation and Theresa knew her leg was decaying.
"I would hold my breath in church thinking that if I can't smell it, no one else can," she said.
"After a few weeks, they were looking for a dead animal and they finally realised the smell was coming from my leg."
The plaster cast was finally removed.
"How I didn't get gangrene was a miracle. The sore was a black hole," Theresa said.
"The nun just laughed in my face and said, 'It won't be long before you lose that rotten leg'."
Amazingly, Theresa didn't lose her leg.
But the scars, physical and mental, are seared deep.
She finally escaped the "hellhole" of Neerkol, only be transferred to a delinquent home in Brisbane.
A chance meeting with a woman when she was in hospital, finally getting treatment for her ulcerated leg, was the turning point.
Theresa went on to marry and now has two grown daughters.
She believes the birth of her children helped to return some normality to her life.
"I had brought these children into the world and I didn't want them ending up in a home like Neerkol.
"I can't wipe the bloody scars off my legs but I can still walk around.
"I still have nightmares occasionally but not like I used to. Life is bearable."
The cause of the fire that tore through the building on Tuesday, November 18, is yet to be determined. Police investigations continue.