I received from Miss K for Christmas Catherine Kovesi’s book Pitch Your Tents on Distant Shores (2006, Playwright Publishing), a beautifully written and very substantial large-format hard-back history of the founders of the Abbotsford Convent, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. It was, and may still be, available from the Sisters’ Provincialate Office at the discounted price of $55. It is remarkable in being quite accessible to the lay reader whilst doing what institutional histories must do. It has many photos of the Abbotsford Convent. Not given to reading religious histories, I am enjoying it.
No doubt it is a commissioned history, which may explain this frank admission in the introduction:
“More problematic has been the question of the stories of those numerous girls and women who found themselves occupants of the many institutions of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Victims of a society which saw women who deviated in any way from the norm as outcasts, they have stories, often of excruciating pain and heartbreak. Whilst I have tried to include some of these stories, the prime focus of this study has been the sisters themselves and their work. I hope that this might provide a foundational backdrop for others to publish work on the lives of the former residents and inmates whose stories need telling.”
But it is clear that Dr Kovesi rails against too hysterical an imagination of the strictures imposed by severe nuns on their wards (referred to as “children” regardless of their age) by blind assumptions based for example on Marxist Peter Mullan‘s film The Magdalene Sisters. It horrified Melburnians a few years ago with its depiction of depraved sadism of Catholic nuns towards “fallen women” in 1960s Ireland. Dr Kovesi says “In the case of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd there has been not so much a shortcoming of history, as a shortage of it altogether and speculation has been allowed to run unchecked,” and suggests such speculation is but the most recent in a centuries old history of disparagement in certain quarters amounting to a “‘Magdalen’ genre”. (The common view of Mary Magdalen, to whom Jesus is said to have first revealed his resurrection, since the 13th century is of a prostitute, however she is referred to in the Bible only as a sinner who tearfully repented her sins to Jesus). Dr Kovesi says:
“For many Catholics the work of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd behind these enormous walls was the subject of hushed conversations, usually out of earshot of younger children in the household, with the occasional threat to their teenage daughters that if they behaved badly they would end up in the care of the sisters. …
For non-Catholics, what went on behind the walls of this and other complexes of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd was often the subject of rampant speculation and, at times, outrageous assertion. The sisters were described as ‘torturing demons, proselytising the souls and battening upon the bodies of their luckless victims’, the convent represented as a ‘gloomy prison wherein girls and women, as well as young children, are immured and most cruelly tortured, and a place where’s God’s sunshine of a smile is ever absent.’ The Sisters were accused of running sweatshops, of undercutting competitors in the marketplace, of forcing women to stay against their will. Common to these views was that of the walls as sinister and negative; the privacy they afford was seen as allowing heinous acts to be performed, their height was seen to be aiding the imprisonment of the inhabitants.”
Dr Kovesi records that the Sisters did not entirely escape the wave of complaints about institutional abuse in the 1990s, but did comparatively very well given the vast numbers of residents who had passed through their door. She emphasises that unlike some other religious orders, corporal punishment was absolutely banned, no complaints of sexual abuse were levelled against the Sisters in Australia, and she found no evidence of residents being detained against their will. Indeed, there was a “no touching” rule which it is suggested led, ironically, to an unfortunate absence of physical affection.
There is no record in the book of any complaints made by former residents of the Abbbotsford Convent to the Senate Enquiry into Children in Institutional Care. It seemed to me from the Report itself that there were in fact 4 such complaints. I asked Dr Kovesi about the apparent discrepancy, and she explained to me that though there were 4 submissions referring to Abbotsford Convent recorded in the Senate report, none was made by a former resident of the Abbotsford Convent, and a mention in a submission is not necessarily a complaint.
The book notes that between 2000 and 2005, the Sisters settled 39 claims from former residents of the Sisters’ many residential institutions in Australia, pointing out that the majority of these claims addressed the lack of educational opportunities provided by the sisters. Given the numbers who passed through their institutions, in other words, they fared well. The fact that the claims were settled out of court tells us nothing about the settlements, especially as the claims were made in a system designed to reach a negotiated settlement.