For six weeks as a 13-year-old, Bernie was in hospital recovering from a serious illness. Doctor’s orders were absolute rest. Bernie wasn’t allowed out of bed, even to go to the toilet.
It was the mid-1960s, and the big TV mounted on the wall near Bernie’s bed was a drawcard for the children in his and other wards. It also seemed to interest hospital attendant Leonard Pink. At the end of his working day Pink would linger in Bernie’s ward. The lights would be dimmed and the TV turned on. In the semi-darkness, Pink would sit beside Bernie, put his hand under the bedcovers and masturbate him.
Bernie was not exactly sure how many times this happened, but thought perhaps it was close to 10. There was never any conversation between them. Pink never spoke to Bernie at all. ‘I was never threatened by him.’
The sexual abuse was deeply confusing for Bernie, and had lasting impacts.
‘You get an erection – that’s what causes you the embarrassment. You react to his advances. And you shouldn’t, if you weren’t interested. That’s what you think subconsciously … It was my first sexual experience. And I got off on the wrong leg.’
There was no one Bernie could talk to about it. He was the youngest of a large family of boys, growing up in a small New South Wales town in a time of widespread homophobia, and his physical response to Pink’s fondling left him convinced he was homosexual.
‘My mother was very passionate and understanding, but I didn’t wish to burden her with that … I wasn’t [homosexual], but I thought I was because I’d been fondled by a man. So I couldn’t tell my brothers or my family.’
All the way through his marriage, the birth of his children, separation and a new relationship with a woman that lasted over 10 years, Bernie secretly believed he was gay. He thought that until 10 to 15 years ago, when he became friends with a gay man he worked with.
‘I didn’t really know what a homosexual was, other than I thought if someone molested you, you must be homosexual, if you didn’t resist them or dob them in.’
Bernie’s doubts about his sexuality were compounded by the loss of both his parents before he turned 20. He had no one to lean on and nowhere to go. ‘I went into adulthood virtually on my own.’
Throughout his teenage years and beyond Bernie became obsessive about proving his sexuality. He was married and a parent by 21. He suffered badly from low self-esteem.
‘My self-esteem was so low, I didn’t want people to get to know me. I avoided people. That’s why I’ve been in and out of relationships and in and out of jobs … I’ve been a quitter all my life.’ Issues with confidence and commitment meant he never took up opportunities when they came his way.
‘I think I could have done much better.’
Bernie has recently retired. Not having to deal with people any more is ‘fantastic’. He appreciates the time he now has to spend with his grandchildren. Generally, he feels content.
‘I think I enjoy the peace of [retirement] … I don’t have to do anything anymore.’
Bernie has never reported Pink’s sexual assaults, but is considering doing so now. He saw him once, about 25 years ago. Bernie was driving and Pink was standing at a pedestrian crossing. ‘I had a violent reaction towards him. I felt like running him over.’
Bernie writes poems, and brought several to his session to share with the Commissioner. He believes the fact that he was able to come to the Royal Commission is a sign of growing peace with his experience.
‘I would not have been able to contact the Commission five years ago, I don’t think. But when I did it I felt 10 foot tall and bullet proof.’ Since first getting in touch with the Commission, he has also told his son and his ex-partner about the abuse.
Bernie’s childhood trauma still looms large in his mind. ‘Of all the good and bad things that have happened in my life, this is my main memory. That shouldn’t be, should it.’