‘I know my mother was very caring and tender towards me’, Alex told the Commissioner. He was only about two when she died, in the mid-1960s. Alex and his younger brother Frank were left in the care of their father, a violent alcoholic, who felt the boys had ‘stopped his life’. ‘He told us that later’, Alex said. ‘Today I’m still estranged from him. Always have been.’
About a year after their mother died, their father placed the boys in an orphanage in a northern suburb of Sydney. It was run by a Catholic order of nuns. Alex was about three when he arrived there, and nine or 10 when he left. In the six or so years that he spent there he experienced ongoing psychological abuse. He was also sexually abused, both at the orphanage and during holiday stays with foster families.
Alex doesn’t know the name of the woman who first abused him, or her exact role in the orphanage. Perhaps a nurse, or perhaps a novitiate nun; he’s not sure. She would wake him up at night time.
‘It first started when she used to take my temperature with a thermometer, when I used to get a fever or a cold or sick. She would insert a thermometer into my anus – which is normal practice, I understand that. But then she would introduce other things, over the course of time.’
The abuse first occurred a few months after Alex arrived at the orphanage, and continued for several years. The woman made Alex lie on his tummy and then poked things into his anus – sometimes something hard, like a clothes peg or a tube, and sometimes her fingers.
‘She would tell me to wriggle around like a worm, while she was abusing me. She would touch my penis saying that she was trying to make it go hard and she would get upset when it wouldn’t.’
On multiple occasions, her assaults made him bleed. When Alex cried, she cuddled him. Her comfort was very confusing. ‘It’s very conflicting. You don’t where you are. But you know you’re scared of her. I used to shake sometimes when I knew it was night-time and she was on duty. I would piss the bed.’
The trauma Alex was experiencing began to be reflected in his daily behaviour.
‘I used to act out quite horribly in there, you know what I mean? I remember painting all the walls of the toilet one night with my poo, this went on for months – because it used to hurt, what she was doing to me. My outlet and vent was to smear [my poo] on the walls.’
Alex was punished, but no one investigated the reasons behind his behaviour. ‘They didn’t want to find out. They were saying I was a bad devil.’
The woman’s sexual assaults came to an end when Alex was moved to different accommodation within the institution. But he continued to suffer the emotional abuse routinely dished out by the nuns. ‘I was always told I was a bad, bad, evil person’, he told the Commissioner.
He was sexually assaulted again when he was sent to a foster family for a holiday. The first time this occurred, he was blamed. ‘The daughter in the holiday host’s family got me to lie on her and she told me to move like I was dancing. Her mother came in and I got into trouble.’ Back at the orphanage, the nuns accused Alex of being a sexual predator.
‘They were accusing me of all this sexual perpetration stuff which I had no idea what it meant or what it was. I’m going, “No, this is wrong, you’ve got it wrong here”.’ But the nuns didn’t believe him.
On another holiday, the teenager daughters of the household started masturbating him. They weren’t seen by any adults so Alex didn’t get into trouble.
When his father formed a new relationship, he took Alex and his brother back. But the relationship didn’t last and for the next four or five years Alex and his brother lived sometimes with their father, sometimes with their stepmother, looking after themselves a lot of the time. As a teenager Alex got a job as an actor, and through that work connected with a family who took him in. ‘I was going to stay for two weeks; still today we’re family.’
He also developed an alcohol and drug problem, one that he’s had for much of his life. Alcohol made him violent, and destroyed his chance of a successful acting career. He was a good actor, he said, ‘but my alcohol drinking and attitude destroyed that … In the eyes of society I was a very anti-social person, for quite a long time’.
And drugs ruined his health, so that today he is unable to work and lives on a disability pension in a Housing Commission flat in Sydney. In the early 2000s drugs also landed him in jail, on a three-year sentence for supplying heroin. That conviction however also led to compulsory participation in a drug treatment program, an experience he describes as ‘a godsend. A blessing’. Counselling at different times has also been helpful: ‘That started to answer some questions for me and helped to understand to learn forgiveness’.
Alex believes institutions need to be better at meeting children’s emotional needs. ‘I didn’t learn about a lot of stuff of nurturing or caring or anything like that, till later in life. I never had any of it. Knew it was missing’, he said. He would like to see ‘more understanding by the institutions of nurturing – to give that sensibility of belonging. Not just you’re another number or another pay check for us’.