Bernard's story

Bernard is an Indigenous man who was born in the early 1960s. He told the Commissioner that after his parents split up the family fell apart. Bernard and his siblings looked after themselves until they were arrested and charged with neglect. ‘It was a crime that we committed upon ourselves by hanging round together, neglected.’ Bernard was six years old at the time.

After being shuffled around from one children’s home to another, Bernard was eventually sent to a Catholic mission, where he stayed until he was 12. Bernard described the mission as ‘a world where everything went like clockwork and the duty to the Church came before everything else’.

It was also a violent place. There was one ‘slap-happy’ priest who beat the children, and a lay teacher who whipped them with branches he’d cut from a tree in the yard. Bernard remembered one time when the lay teacher threw his branch at a kid, ‘and the kid ducked and it stabbed in the arm of another kid. But it didn’t worry him, he just pulled the stick out of his arm and kept on beating up the other kid’.

Bernard sometimes went driving with a priest named Father Connery. Connery would sit Bernard in his lap and let him steer. There was one occasion after that when Connery called Bernard into his office and sexually abused him.

Bernard said it was also a ‘common occurrence’ for older boys to sexually abuse the younger boys. He never fell victim to this kind of abuse himself because some of his cousins looked out for him. Also, Bernard thinks that he ‘subconsciously’ protected himself in other ways, such as climbing trees. ‘You can be alone there. No one can really creep up on you there.’

Bernard never reported the abuse to anyone at the mission. He said he could never see the point. ‘It was isolated. You could never get out of the place. You could tell who you liked – it didn’t matter.’

Eventually he was sent to a high school in the city. He enjoyed learning and described it as one of the few things that got him through. After year 11 he left the school and started a trade.

Over the years Bernard has struggled with the psychological consequences of the abuse. He said there were periods when he felt suicidal. Sometimes he’d forget to eat for days. For a while when he was younger he self-medicated with alcohol, but he gave that up a few years back. ‘I discovered that being in the bottle makes you more violent. It makes me more violent anyhow.’ He hasn’t been able to work for some time. Recently he’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bernard said he has no interest in monetary compensation. The only form of redress he wants is the return of his grandfather’s land, which is currently owned by the Church.

Bernard told the Commissioner that one of the best ways to improve life for Indigenous Australians is to help them return to the land and to ‘cultural governance’.

‘Putting people back out on the land, instead of keeping them in town – where they can have their own community where they used to live, in their own little clan group, a place where they’re all hanging. Most people live in family groups, but not together as one big family.’

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