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Barney Matthew's story

‘Dad shot through. He left one morning to purchase a new truck and never came home. And some weeks later, our mother just disappeared.’

Barney, seven, and his siblings ‘found out later our mother had been committed to a psychiatric hospital … We were left alone in the house, fending for ourselves for four or five weeks – stealing bread and milk from neighbours’ doorsteps, and using what milk or paper money we could find to survive’.

Eventually, welfare services rounded up the abandoned family. Barney found himself in a Melbourne Catholic boys’ home where a certain nun ‘was sadistic in her treatment of vulnerable children’. She also introduced the boy to sexual abuse.

‘Sister Bridget would always make sure that I was last to enter the bath … At eight years of age, it was very embarrassing to be washed by a woman, especially around the genital area, and during the bathing she would molest me … There were also the many forays to my bed during late nights, after the other kids had gone to sleep.’

During an unhappy spell with a brutal foster mother, Barney began his long career as a runaway. ‘I ran away many times, and came to the notice of the police.’

Barney eventually came before the courts. ‘The magistrate asked if I could give him one good reason for not sending us back to the foster mother. I pulled my shirt up, turned around and showed him the many scars and bruises from her treatment.’

He was then sent to another Catholic orphanage. ‘If I’d known what the future held, I would gladly have returned to the foster mother.’

The Christian Brothers believed in flogging children. ‘One could always count on six of the best whenever one did something wrong. The Brothers had never heard of one or two … The weapon used varied from a leather strap about 12 inches long, by one inch wide, sewn together and weighted with lead discs, to a disused squeegee blade, or a split cane.

‘To lessen the pain we’d rub our hands vigorously against the rough cement walls, which would give a deadening effect. This meant that we would only feel the last two or three cuts, depending on how far the Brother would elevate himself off the ground when delivering the strokes.’

And with the beatings came other assaults. One of the Brothers took to visiting Barney’s bed on a regular basis. Barney ran away many times, and was eventually transferred to another orphanage outside Melbourne. He was hopeful that this new home, with its country atmosphere and attached farm, and outside activities including picnics and holiday camps, would be a better experience.

Instead, he got ‘two years of systematic abuse’ during which he was repeatedly raped by three Christian Brothers.

Barney would clean Brother Matthew’s bedroom and, during these times, the Brother would give him money and cigarettes, and also sexually abuse him. Brother Smith would rape Barney in the dairy before the afternoon milking, and Brother Jones molested Barney in his bedroom.

Barney believes the three communicated with each other about what they were doing to him. ‘I became a potato sack, a sexual potato sack between the three of them. It was repetitive and it was a nightmare.’

After nearly two years, Barney finally broke his silence to a welfare officer. ‘He promised he would investigate my allegations and see that if there was any truth to my complaints.’ But instead he went straight to the most senior of Barney’s abusers.

‘A couple of weeks later, I was summoned to his office and got one of the severest bashings I’d ever had, for lodging my complaint.’

At last Barney turned 18 and could flee the home. But all his escapes had done little to prepare him for living in the real world. ‘I was so institutionalised … I didn’t know how to handle being out on my own.

‘I did break-ins and burglaries all over – not for greed, but because I knew it would get me back in jail. Because that’s where I could be happy. I could survive there.

‘I didn’t have any sort of normal activity as a young boy or as a young adult. There was no sexual activity whatsoever. I couldn’t bring myself to anything like that. I had these nightmares, didn’t want to know about it.

‘I didn’t want anybody to get close to me because I couldn’t trust anyone.’

And so began decades of prison, alternating with pointless crime. ‘When I did a job, I didn’t wear gloves. I didn’t care. So naturally, they found me because of my fingerprints – “Hey, Barney. C’mon back to jail.”

‘But in prison I felt safe. They might be in control of me, but I was in control of my own environment.’

The cycle ended in his early 40s. Having met and married some years earlier, Barney found a new purpose. ‘My wife gave birth to a son and I said, “Well, that’s the end of my life of crime and hate”.’

In the early 2000s Barney sought compensation from the Christian Brothers, and received a ‘$45,000 “Shut up” fee’.

Now in his late 60s, Barney has some insight into the trauma of his youth. ‘I think state governments have woken up to the fact that institutions are not the answer anymore. But they’ve still got wards of state, and they want to be damn careful where they put those children.

‘They need to be well and truly monitored, and you’ve really got to know how to question a child.

‘I wasn’t the only one and, sadly, it wasn’t only the Catholic Church either. It was the Salvation Army. It was the Church of England. It was everywhere. In those days, the wrong people were looking after young children.’

In managing each day now, Barney remarked, ‘I get up and I head butt!’

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