By the time Bernie was 10 years old, his father was very unwell and his mother could not cope looking after him. He was placed into care, and in the early 1950s was sent to a Methodist boys’ home in Melbourne.
The home was a ‘dreary, rotten place. I hated it, I was terribly depressed all the time’. The man in charge, Mr Harrow, was a harsh disciplinarian, and prone to fits of anger during which he would physically abuse the boys. ‘You’re a kid, you can’t defend yourself.’
On one occasion Harrow broke the neck of a kitten which one of the boys had adopted as a pet – doing so in front of them.
Harrow ‘would also force boys into sex. I was forced, I was beaten’. This abuse happened about fortnightly. Harrow made one of the older boys who worked there ‘abuse the boys, and have sex in front of all of them’.
There were no other staff present during these incidents, but an older woman who worked as a cook was apparently aware of the abuse. ‘She asked me once or twice ... I just couldn’t talk about it. She had some concerns I guess. But one day she just wasn’t there anymore.’
After a few months Bernie was returned to his parents for a while, then to another children’s home. When he was 14 years old he ran away with a friend from the home. They found accommodation and employment in the city, and did not get into any trouble.
Despite this they were picked up by police and returned to the home. ‘Probably at the end of the day I still figure that we would have been better off left out there, because we were making our own way.’
For ‘our sin of absconding and being honest and working, and not thieving and not doing anything wrong’ Bernie and his friend were separated, and sent to separate Salvation Army boys’ homes. The manager where Bernie was sent physically abused him, and two of the officers sexually abused him. One of these officers ‘would get a boy to warm his bed ... in the cold weather, and then get in and abuse the boy’.
It never occurred to Bernie that he could report this abuse to police. He did not think they would believe him.
‘You would probably get a belting from the local copper and sent back to the home in those days. They would just never believe you. So there was nowhere to go, there was nowhere to run ...
‘That was the system, that was the way it happened. These people knew that they were protected, these people knew that they were people of the Church and they had the respect. Us kids, well, we were just home kids, we were child welfare kids, we were delinquents I suppose (we were termed as, even though we weren’t).’
Towards the end of his time at the Salvation Army home, Bernie was admitted to hospital because he had contracted jaundice and hepatitis, and he told the matron and one of the nurses what was happening to him.
‘Now and again I used to break down in tears ... They knew there was something wrong, and eventually one day I told them. But I had to beg and beg that they weren’t to tell anyone else.’ The nurse wanted to contact the child welfare department, but the matron instructed her not to ‘because she was genuinely frightened that it would be taken out on me when I was sent back to the home’.
Shortly after this Bernie was discharged from hospital, but instead of returning to his home he was sent back to his mother’s care.
Bernie has been employed for most of his adult life. He lives with ongoing health problems which he attributes to being introduced to cigarettes at an early age in the homes, and the damp and cold conditions in these places.
In recent years Bernie consulted a lawyer regarding compensation. The Methodist Church denied he was ever in the home they ran. ‘Their only problem was that the child welfare department records showed that I was, and that I was sent home because I was terribly depressed, or I think the word they used was “boy fretting”. Was it any wonder?’ Despite this evidence, Bernie’s action against the Methodist Church was unsuccessful.
The Salvation Army denied that either of the officers who abused him ever worked at the homes that Bernie identified. When he provided evidence otherwise they gave him a small amount of compensation.
Bernie asked his lawyer about possible police reporting, as one of the men who sexually abused him is still alive, as is the captain who physically assaulted the boys. She informed him that the police were not interested in pursuing charges against these men.
‘I believe there should be further redress, yes, and I believe there should be further things done to look after the welfare of Forgotten Australians. There are some out there still that are worse off than me now, that don’t have proper places to live, that are subject to wrong housing – I hear about them. More could be done for them as well.’
Married for many years, Bernie is ‘extremely protective’ of his children and grandchildren. His children ‘are aware of what’s happened’ to him in care, and became ‘very teary about it’ when they first found out. ‘They’re very protective of me still today too.’