Bernard James's story

Bernard grew up with his mum and siblings in Queensland, and hasn’t seen his father since he was a toddler in the early 1980s. When he was about eight years old, his mum got a new partner, had more children and ‘just dismissed’ Bernard from her life. ‘All of a sudden I disappeared.’

He was made a ward of the state and was bounced around different foster homes. Some were all right, but some were terrible. He ran away from one of them repeatedly because his foster father was so sadistic. Then, when he was 13 years old, Bernard was sent to a boys’ home in regional Queensland run by the De La Salle Brothers.

He was there for two and a half years. ‘It was horrible …They show themselves off to be good people … but behind the scenes it’s just disgusting.’

Bernard was anxious to tell not just his story to the Commission, but also the story of his friend Toby, who suffered alongside him at the home. Toby died of a drug overdose last year. ‘I’m speaking for him too at this point in time … Now he’s gone, how will his story get heard?’

Bernard says he was often woken at three o'clock in the morning, stripped to his underwear and hosed with cold water. He was then made to scrub the floors for hours. But the abuse wasn’t just physical. One of the Brothers, Brother Callum, sexually abused Bernard repeatedly. At first, it was just Bernard on his own but soon Brother Callum started calling both Bernard and Toby into his office.

He’d make them take their pants off and fondle themselves and each other while he watched. This continued for the entire time that Bernard was there, although it happened less frequently when he reached Year 10. ‘We were becoming young men. We weren’t boys no more.’

Bernard and Toby ran away from the home and reported the sexual abuse to the police when they were picked up. ‘They just thought we were a joke.’

Every day, two of the other Brothers would come in and watch the boys have showers. It was easy to do, because there were no doors to the shower area.

The boys in the home didn’t discuss the abuse with each other. They would just exchange looks when Bernard and Toby came back from Brother Callum’s office.

‘We just knew what was happening … We couldn’t tell anybody because we were out there because we were liars anyway ... We were just brats.

‘Until this Royal Commission, until now … We can stand up and poke our tongues out at ‘em and say, “See? We were telling the truth the whole time and now what?”’

Bernard was discharged when he was 16. The home had a duty of care to make sure the kids had accommodation when they were released, Bernard said. He was sent to a youth hostel. But because he was under age, the youth hostel wouldn’t take him in.

So Bernard lived on the streets, committing break and enters in order to buy food. He was caught by police and sent to a youth detention centre. The physical abuse was terrible. And again, staff watched the boys in the showers. They’d laugh at them and bring other staff members in to look. And again this happened every day.

Bernard was moved on to another boys’ home. This was ‘the devil place’ where the physical abuse was ‘second to none’.

‘We were made to fight there ... If I lost, I got put in isolation … The detention centre was the belly of a beast.’ The boys were bashed, thrown down stairs and sometimes woke up in isolation after being knocked unconscious.

Bernard believes they were being prepared for a correctional centre which was right across the road.

At 17, Bernard did time in jail for armed robbery. Since then, the pattern has been release, reoffend, and then back to jail. Bernard is in prison now.

‘My whole life’s been in jail. It’s just one big institution to me.’

Bernard would mention the abuse he experienced at the De La Salle Brothers home when he was in court on charges. But the judges wouldn’t listen. ‘Not our beloved [boys’ home] ... not the place that we pay so much money in. How dare you say something like that?’

Bernard received a payout from the home but he feels like he missed out financially. He was ‘heavily under the influence’ when he signed the paperwork and didn’t have a lawyer to advise him.

When the community resource centre Lotus Place was helping Bernard with his claim, a Brother from the home apologised to him across the table. Bernard told him, ‘You’re lucky I’m not on you like a pit bull on a chihuahua, mate … I should just get you right now’.

A New South Wales magistrate was the first person in 20 years to apologise to him for the abuse he suffered in institutions. ‘I take my hat off to her for that.’

Bernard hasn’t been able to form stable relationships and has no contact with his family. Listening to music is what helps him stay resilient.

Bernard’s last words to the Commissioner were about Toby, whose death was a massive loss for him. Toby used to try and keep Bernard’s spirits up when they were in the boys’ home. ‘He was an absolute soldier … he was my best friend ... Me and him suffered that abuse together.’

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