‘I spent most of my childhood till 13 … as a girl’, Benny told the Commissioner. Benny’s sister had died before he was born, and his mother responded to the loss by bringing Benny up as a daughter. Once he started at school he was able to be a boy during school hours but when he got home for the day she made him put on a dress. Benny’s grandfather tried to intervene but without success.
In the mid 1950s when Benny was 13 his mother was placed in a mental hospital. His father, who’d left the family when Benny was five, took him to a Catholic boys’ home run by the Christian Brothers, some 60 km from where he’d grown up in Western Australia. Handing Benny over to the Brothers at the home, his father told them ‘Bring him up as a man. Get rid of the girl’, Benny recalled.
For Brother Lynch, that was an invitation. One of many violent sex abusers at the home, he tormented Benny. The nuns found him dresses to wear – ‘they’d have a bit of a giggle about it – like young schoolgirls’ – and then he’d be sent to Lynch’s room.
‘You got a chocolate bar for a hand job; if you copped it up the arse you got a packet of smokes’, Benny said.
There was no one he could turn to. Not even confidences made in confession were safe. He recalled as ‘the worst thing’ telling a priest in confession what was happening, and Lynch bashing him afterwards as a result. ‘That scared the hell out of me’, he said.
Benny got used to being Brother Lynch’s girl, he said. Then Brother Finnegan began raping him as well. There were also many instances of savage beatings, by them and other Brothers. Boys at the home disappeared in mysterious circumstances. There were whispers that they ended up in the piggery.
One day Benny ran away. He’d been at the home about a year by then. He made the journey back to his grandfather’s place on foot and by hitching rides. The next day Brother Finnegan turned up to take him back. On the way there he stopped the car and raped Benny. A little while later he raped him again. ‘He said “Be a good boy or it’s the pigsty for you”’, Benny remembered.
Benny took off again the next day. This time he stole a bike. When Brother Finnegan turned up at Benny’s grandfather’s house, he took the bike back but left Benny.
Benny didn’t tell his grandfather about the abuse. Until he was 21 or 22, he didn’t realise it was a crime. ‘My biggest fear, with Lynch, was that I was going to get pregnant. I thought I’d end up with a baby.’
He didn’t tell anyone. ‘Kept that pretty hush for a lot of years’, he said. ‘The first person I told was me wife.’
Benny and Pearl married in their early 20s. He credits her with keeping him alive through some tough times. He’s had drinking problems, and got into fights – there’s been some broken knuckles over the years. ‘I was aggressive. I was very aggressive. I got a few hidings too …
‘It took me years to tell Pearl’, he said. ‘It’s slowly come out. I still dress now and again as a female. Pearl puts up with it, has done for a lot of years.’
The couple have four children, 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. It was one of their daughters who saved him from his most recent suicide attempt, when he tried to strangle himself with cable cord. Suicide is always on his mind, he said.
‘Next time I’ll take me boat, fill it up with fuel, go as far as it’ll go then just step over the side.’
That suicide attempt led to a one-off session with a counsellor, but it’s only very recently that Benny has begun having regular counselling, as a result of his contact with the Royal Commission. Maybe he should have done it years ago, he said, but visits to a psychiatrist are expensive, and since injuring his back some 20 years ago he hasn’t been able to work.
Benny has never reported the abuse, and doesn’t want to. ‘I’d be up in front of people like you, talking about something I was ashamed of that I’d hid for years and years’, he told the Commissioner. He hasn’t approached the Catholic Church for compensation. He received a $45,000 payment through a West Australian government redress scheme, and is bitter about the paucity of the amount.
‘Fifty-seven years of misery for three cups of coffee a week’, he said. ‘That’s what it worked out to – about $15 a week.’