‘All my tears dried a long time ago’, Ben told the Commissioner when he first sat down to tell his story. He remembers very clearly what a beautiful day it was when he arrived in Western Australia back in the late 1940s. He was 14 years old and fresh off the boat from the UK. He was even handed an orange by a WA politician as he walked down the gang plank.
Religious differences had ended Ben’s parents’ marriage and he’d been put in an orphanage in Wales run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Their treatment of the children was cruel, and education was sorely lacking. ‘You got no education except religion, catechism and the New Testament.’
So Ben was looking forward to coming to Australia, even though the nuns had warned him, ‘Wait till you get under the Christian Brothers when you get to Australia’.
But Brother Connolly, who was in charge of the home when Ben first arrived, was a lovely man. After Brother Hudson groped Ben and he told Connolly, Brother Hudson disappeared a day later. He was replaced by Brother Price, who turned out to be an abuser as well. ‘They used to just, you know, go from place to place.’
When Brother Connolly was replaced by ‘that monster’ Brother Crawford, Ben cried. He quickly discovered the reality behind the nuns’ warning.
‘Living in Wales, in the orphanage there, was purgatory, but when I came to Australia … particularly under the regime of Brother Crawford, it was a living hell.’
Ben has vivid memories of the various sexual abuses doled out by the Brothers over the next three years. Brother Grant, who never wore anything under his cassock -‘oh, he was a slime ball, this one’ - gave him sleeping tablets one night and turned up at his bedside an hour later. Ben ran off to the toilet to escape him.
Father Sanchez used Ben as a live model for his sculpting. Sanchez asked Ben, who was just on the edge of puberty, if he’d experienced a wet dream. Ben had no idea what that was. Sanchez started to masturbate him so that he could be assisted through the shock of his first ejaculation. Ben grabbed his clothes and ran, feeling dirty and guilty.
Later, Sanchez gave him a gift of a missal. ‘And he said, "You know, you have sort of gone through a bit of a - you know”. So that was that.’
The Brothers were sex starved, Ben said. Years later when he was in the army, an Australian soldier told him that when he was in a Christian Brothers home, ‘We were glad when the Pommy kids came because they left us alone’.
The Brothers had different gifts they’d give to boys after they had abused them. One gave rosary beads, another lollies, another holy pictures and another gave presents of white sandshoes.
The Brothers’ abuse of boys was physical as well as sexual. They had leather straps made to their specifications, with four layers of leather and steel blades in between each layer. Ben had his nose broken by Brother Crawford. Other boys suffered broken bones. The bruising from the floggings lasted four or five days.
The police didn’t ever come to investigate why children were breaking bones because, Ben said, Brother Crawford was ‘a con man’ whose best friend and a frequent visitor to the home was a senior officer with WA Police.
‘If boys ever ran away, every policeman in Western Australia would be on the lookout for you, from Perth to Bunbury and Perth to Geraldton, and very few kids ever got away.’
Various important Catholic businessmen came to visit Brother Crawford and they were wined and dined. Ben had to fetch lamb, eggs, and fresh cream from the farm. Journalists came to visit Crawford as well and were given wine and other fresh produce to take home.
‘The Sunday Times used to write up gorgeous statements about … “The man in a million", you know, "The orphan's friend”.
‘And I never saw an egg, not a cooked egg … in the three years I was there. Never.’ The boys also had to work on building sites, getting cement burns on their fingers and feet, as well as bad sunburn.
When Ben left the army he became a campaigner for child migrants who’d suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers. In the 1990s he was part of a class action against them. He was financially compensated by Redress WA and the Sisters of Nazareth, nearly 60 years after he was in their care.
He told the Sisters, ‘"My father was paying you people 16 shillings a week to keep me in the orphanage" … and when I came to Australia, he was still paying 16 shillings a week to the Christian Brothers’.
But one thing Ben hasn’t been able to fix is the impact of the sexual abuse on his relationships. Two marriages have ended and he finds it impossible to be affectionate with his kids.
‘That’s the worst part, not having, you know, a satisfied, fully loving family, connecting with a devoted woman.’
Ben’s kids tell him to put it behind him. But he can’t. ‘I don't go to sleep at night-time without these things coming back to mind.’ He has attempted suicide several times, has been on Valium, and saw a psychiatrist for several years.
As a result of Ben’s campaigning, a statue of Brother Crawford was removed from its pedestal at the boys’ home. It was taken ‘around the back’ where sexual abuse survivors had access to it. They removed the head with a hacksaw. ‘It took four and a half hours’, Ben told the Commissioner.