Growing up, Benita got used to her father Max’s reserve about his early life. ‘I always knew Dad was a private person when it came to his upbringing’, she said. As she came to realise, it was just one of many traits and habits arising from his childhood experiences.
Max was the youngest of eight children, all placed in care by their parents. He was two at the time he was sent to a Catholic orphanage in regional Victoria, in the late 1950s. After leaving there in his teens he spent some time in a boys’ home, then lived rough in Melbourne. He got work, moved to Queensland and was eventually taken under the friendly wing of a couple who employed him on their rural property. Over time they became like parents to him and grandparents to his four daughters.
Benita and Max came to the Royal Commission together. Benita wanted the two of them to be there to explain how the effects of abuse aren’t confined to the victim.
‘I have come here today to hopefully give some insight to a different point of view about child sexual abuse in state institutions’, she said. Not only victims but ‘their families, friends, children, sisters, brothers and generations to come’ are all affected, she said.
In the case of her father and his siblings, institutional life broke their family ties. The children were separated, losing touch with one another and their parents. Max recalled seeing his mother once when he was 12, and his father once in his late teens. That was all.
He was reunited with one of his brothers, Andrew, in the late 2000s. Andrew had lived in nine different orphanages. He’d been physically and sexually abused, and as a result was never able to have a sexual relationship. When Max found him again, Andrew was severely dependent on alcohol and was living in squalor.
‘The abuse never stopped for that poor bugger’, Max said.
Max and his family didn’t have much time with Andrew, who died not long afterwards. But the time they had was especially valuable to Benita, who formed an immediate and close connection with Andrew. The stories he told her about his past gave her new understanding of what Max had been through.
‘There are certain behaviors, smells and touch that I have witnessed from my dad growing up that I know have been a direct result from a child that was institutionalised’, she said.
She described the way he looks forward to Christmas and birthdays because they were never celebrated in the orphanage. He doesn’t like people walking behind him, because sudden whacks in the back of the head had been commonplace. ‘He’s forever ensuring that he’s positioned with his back to the wall’, Benita said.
He hates being cold, he dresses neatly in clean clothes, he eats very slowly and is always the last person at the dinner table. There are lots of foods he can’t eat, because he was forced to eat so much of them as a child – ‘Like cabbage, for example’, Benita said.
In her own life, it is Max’s difficulty expressing feelings that has had the greatest impact. ‘The hardest part for me is the lack of emotion he shows … I have been robbed of having shows of affection towards me, whether it be sad, hurt or proud.’
She has also missed the presence of wider family, as people she might have been close to and who could have helped her know herself.
‘As a child I’ve been hurt by the fact that I’ve not had grandparents in my life. Yes, I’ve had lovely people who have acted as substitutes, who have loved and cherished my dad like their own son – however, it isn’t the same thing’, she said.
‘I can’t see if I have resemblances, I can’t see if I take after someone personality-wise. I can’t see, you know, if we had the same interests.’ She can’t identify physical characteristics that might explain her medical history.
These are all impacts that will affect not just her but her children – ‘How I parent them and how I bring them up and so on and so forth. … It will continue to go on and on, until you know, perhaps people stop hurting from what happened, if that’s even possible. Or until that generation … pass on, and the people that inflicted that pain pass on.’
Max has never reported his experiences to anyone nor sought redress from the Church. He has not sought counselling. ‘You look at me from the outside, I seem fine, you know. But maybe if I do go and seek counselling I might not like the bloke that comes out, you know’, he explained.
Benita believes that she would be helped by an account that pieces together all the different parts of her father’s story, which he, with his ‘fractured memories’, is unable to provide. She would like his suffering, and that of his siblings, to be formally acknowledged.
‘I hope that by speaking out today on behalf of my sisters and my mum I can give my dad the strength to face his past and fight for his justice and tell his story, and undo some of the wrong that was done to him’, she said.
‘Unfortunately he seems to think in a lot of ways that it’s happened, why bring up what’s happened.’
‘I can’t change it’, said Max.
‘You can’t change it’, Benita agreed. ‘But what you can do is you can make peace with it, I think, and you can also perhaps get parties held responsible for what happened.’