Arnold Peter's story

'Everyone went to bed scared, everyone woke up scared. I had 12 years of constant fear.'

That's how Arnold recalls his stay, starting at age five, at a Marist Brothers orphanage in Sydney during the 1950s and 1960s. Life before had also been fraught. 'My father was a tyrant, brutal and deranged. He was always in and out of jail for stealing and assaults … he destroyed my mother.'

When Arnold was three and a half, his mother took him and his younger brothers to his father's parents – and fled. 'She just disappeared, escaping from my father.' There was no escape for those she left behind. 'He used to come round, looking for my mother … One time he turned up with a bag of coins and they fell on the ground. He screamed at us to pick them up. We were so scared, my brother and I wet ourselves, and he then rubbed our faces in the urine.'

Arnold thinks incidents like this convinced his grandmother to give up the children. Within a year she told him, 'You're going on a holiday, Arnold: your brothers will come later', and took him to the orphanage.

'She left me with this big man, Brother Peter. After a while I told him I wanted to go home and he said to me, "This is home now, and with God's help I will help you through life".

'But he wasn't much help', Arnold says. 'He was a nice, gentle person but he was dominated by others, even though he was the principal.'

Most of the Brothers were violent.

'Their purpose was to instill fear so they could control 360 boys … Everyone walked around on eggshells – I suffer from it even today, the fear and uncertainty. In the classroom you dared not look away, dared not do anything to attract the attention of a Brother, because they would drag you out and cane you.'

And some of the staff did other things. A lay teacher named Bennett used to groom students by inviting them to join his bird-watching club. He would arrange for field trips that ran overnight, and would sexually abuse the children in the bathrooms of the hotels they were staying in. On an interstate trip, 13-year-old Arnold became one of his victims.

Around the same time, a rare bright spot had entered his life. The Bothwell family who lived nearby had offered him a home to visit on holidays and long weekends, and there Arnold found affection and support. Mrs Bothwell noticed he was withdrawn and upset after the interstate visit. 'She asked how the trip went, and I broke down and said, "Well, it didn't go too well …"

'She was furious. The next day she rang Brother Peter: she was rampant! A week later we went to the orphanage; she abused Brother Peter and threatened to call the police.'

When Arnold returned to the orphanage after the holiday, Bennett was gone.

But another predator was on the prowl: Brother Samson, the dormitory chief. 'He used to walk down the row of beds at night. He'd stop and whisper something in one of the boys' ears, go back to his room and within 10 minutes the kid would get out of bed, walk up to the Brother's room, and the door would shut.

'Sometimes they'd be in there all night, other times five minutes. There would be screaming and yelling and crying going on, then he'd open the door and out they'd come.'

And one night, about eight months after the Bennett assault, Samson came for Arnold. 'After I'd been assaulted, I remembered what Mrs Bothwell had told me – to make a noise. I started screaming and crying. He threatened me, he threatened to bash me. Then he told me to get back to bed – and if I told anyone, God and he would punish me.'

When Arnold turned 16, he was sent to live with a family who ran a beachside store. 'This ended up being three years of slave labour … I lived on the back verandah, which was only partly enclosed … A representative of child welfare turned up and asked about my pay. I said I got nothing.

'He asked me where I slept and I showed him, and he was upset about it. He confronted the family and they said they were putting my wages into a separate account – but they couldn't produce the bank book. The welfare man said he would come back to check, but he never did.'

It took another year for Arnold to finally break with these exploiters. He blames the orphanage life for leaving him unprepared for the outside world, and scared to assert himself. 'There was no training, no preparation. You were just shown the gate and told never to return … And when I left, I did what I was told by those people – because they kept threatening to send me back.'

Arnold learnt to stand up for himself, went on to have a career in public service, and is happily married with grown children. He has tried to bury the childhood sexual abuse – he disclosed it to his wife only a few weeks before his session with the Royal Commission – but knows it still affects him.

'You can lock it away in the back of your head, but periodically when you see something on TV, or you're talking to someone, something unleashes it.'

And he has no time for the faith that was the background to the abuse.

'I wore my knees out for many years praying to God to get me out of that place. Things just got worse. If there were a God, he wouldn't have let those things happen to children in his name …'

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