Canberra is a city brimming with high achievers—women who do incredible things on the local,…
There are some heavy themes in Prisoners of Silence, Canberra author Patricia Beaton’s debut novel.
But that’s exactly why she chose to cover them—to give light and voice to events that she says have been left in the dark and silenced for too long.
Published in 2020, Prisoners of Silence follows the (fictional) journey of Molly, who has a priest’s baby in a secret ward at St Vincent’s Hospital in the 1950s.
Drawing on her own experiences in the church community and on documentary evidence, including from the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Patricia creates a powerful narrative that looks closely on the failings of the church and authority figures through the latter half of the 20th century, as well as the men and women who were affected forever by these failings.
How did you come up with the concept for Prisoners of Silence?
I once came across a former classmate who had had a baby to a priest. Audrey (not her real name) believed her son had died at birth until years later when she demanded to see the grave. St Vincent’s Hospital finally admitted that her son had been adopted.
Then came years of searching for him. As the adoption had been illegal, there was no paperwork. During the 50s and 60s, the church was very powerful socially and politically, and never suspected of clerical abuse or corruption.
It was a time when girls grew up in the absence of sex education. A time when no government assistance was given to single mothers. A time when Catholics considered that pregnancy outside marriage was as bad as murder, many abandoning their daughters.
During the Royal Commission, I learned that the notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale, chaplain at the Sisters of Nazareth Girls Home in Ballarat, was given carte blanche to sexually and physically abuse the girls.
I decided then that the widespread abuse of girls was barely acknowledged, and that there must be many who had not come forward (in a journal article entitled Speaking Out: Clergy Sexual Abuse: Where are the women?, Kathleen Sands says evidence suggests that church officials often dismissed complaints by females and that the abuse of girls was underreported).
I have documentary evidence that Archbishop Mannix set up a special ward at St Vincent’s Hospital for girls and women who had babies to priests, despite present-day conservative journalists denying he knew anything about clerical abuse.
Combined with Audrey’s story and my unique upbringing, a narrative began emerging in my mind about four years ago.
The first fourteen years or so of the protagonist’s life is based on mine. Together with hers and Audrey’s story, I knew that this was how I would have been treated by society had I been seduced or assaulted in the fifties.
It sounds like this book contains some heavy content–how was it dealing with this content during the writing process?
With an uncle a priest who was a friend of the bishop, and a close friend whose mother was housekeeper to a notorious paedophile priest, I had reasonable insight into priests’ lives.
One scene between the priest and the protagonist, Molly, was particularly difficult. It was important to make it graphic but abhorrent without it being sexual.
I despised this hypocritical priest purporting to be God’s representative on earth. After the reprehensible scene with Molly, I wiped him from the narrative until my manuscript advisor said that his character must continue because readers would want to know about his life as a priest. And surely he should get his comeuppance! Difficult, seeing that priests were relocated, never dismissed for the evil they perpetrated.
The scene in the organ gallery with Cecilia, another key character, was probably inspired by my experience with a sleazy priest as a young organist in a large Melbourne church.
I researched adoption reports on how young girls in the fifties were treated by their parents, maternity homes, and hospital staff. The statement from the doctor who made the comment about unmarried pregnant girls was authentic.
The scenes in The Royal Women’s Hospital were not exaggerated. It is commendable that this hospital has recently apologised for the treatment of their patients, particularly unmarried mothers.
One of the nuns from the maternity home also wrote a public apology for her treatment of the girls over a ten-year period. There has been no apology from hospitals that drugged the girls and permitted illegal adoptions.
After learning online that 60% of nuns were gay, (American statistics, none available for Australia!) it seemed natural to have a love affair between the two nuns, one of whom is a key character.
I believe I dealt sensitively with one rather erotic scene in comparison to the shocking behaviour that was going on in the presbytery.
Tell us about the characters of Prisoners of Silence and what inspired them.
There are four key characters. The early part of the main character, Molly, is based on my own life up until about the age of fifteen.
From then on, Molly’s life morphs into a fictitious character, partly based on what happened to my former classmate, Audrey, who had her baby in the secret ward at St Vincent’s Hospital.
Father Kelly, having been denied a normal adolescence, is not really a fictitious character. He is a degenerate priest who can be found by the thousand anywhere in the world. With his Catholic education and a devout mother pushing him into the priesthood, some might argue that he was blameless because he had been brainwashed.
The French nun, Jeanne, is a fictitious character partly based on a nun I liked at school. Some of Sister Jeanne’s methods are similar to the style I used during my teaching career.
Cecilia is a typical girl of the fifties and one of Molly’s friends who appreciates her sense of humour and stories about the pub. Together with a mutual friend, they have a passionate love of music, and share their dislike of the convent’s Mother Superior.
Who is Prisoners of Silence perfect for?
This narrative should engage women and men who lived throughout the 1950s onwards. Given the age of some characters, the story would also appeal to younger generations.
One of my teenage granddaughters who gave it five stars, said she couldn’t believe how horrible things were back then.
She said she cried in the sad parts but really loved the humour, especially when the students plotted to outwit the nuns so they could get around the draconian convent rules.
What’s on your To Be Read pile?
I have just finished reading Robert Macklin’s Castaway, and Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning. Presently I’m reading Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves and next on my list is Richard Glover’s Flesh Wounds.
When I exercise, I listen to crime or courtroom thrillers by such writers as Daniel Silva, Michael Robotham and JK Rowling. Presently I am listening to The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer.
What’s next for you and your writing career?
I’m writing short stories to send off to competitions. If Prisoners of Silence takes off, I will write a story of historical fiction that will have quite a strong musical theme.