After his father died and his mother took up full-time work, Burt went to live in an orphanage in Adelaide run by the Sisters of St Joseph. He remembers being happy there and there was one nun in particular, Sister Noeline, who was lovely, kind, and like ‘an angel’.
Burt did very well at school but his grades slipped dramatically when he moved to a Salesian boarding school in the 1960s at the age of 11. ‘First day I got there, I got beaten up, so I thought this is bloody fantastic, isn’t it.’ The atmosphere in the school was one of violence, and the teaching priests encouraged it. ‘I hated it the whole time I was there, seriously, mate.’
The priests regularly perpetrated physical, sexual, spiritual and emotional abuse on the students. At night boys lay in their beds terrified, each hoping he wouldn’t be the one picked out and taken back to a priest’s room.
Father McNamara was well-known as an offender, but it was Father Schofield who called Burt to the school infirmary one day and made him undress. The priest then took his own clothes off and made Burt feel his erection.
On another occasion, Father Becker made Burt undress and lie down on a bed while he washed his body all over with cotton balls.
‘I mean, you can argue, you know, what happened to me was really – it’s really not very much compared to other people and that, but it’s all relevant to the person, isn’t it, you know, the effect it has. It still has an effect, doesn’t it.’
Growing up and into his adult life, Burt didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. He’d heard that after allegations had been made by someone about Father Schofield, the priest had been transferred by the Salesians to work in the Pacific Islands.
Towards the end of his marriage, Burt tried telling his wife about the abuse but found it too difficult. He was a heavy drinker for years and only disclosed what had happened when he got sober in the 1990s, but by then the marriage had broken down.
Burt also told his two children. Through their early years, he’d struggled with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and had never been able to get close to them, for fear ‘I was going to molest them’.
In the early 2000s, Burt thought ‘enough’s enough’, and gave evidence to the South Australian Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry. He could see the damage the abuse was doing and thought of all the years he’d been worried he’d abuse his children, ‘until one day I thought, this is never going to happen to you because you’re not like that’. He found the experience of telling his story to the inquiry positive and the staff warm and approachable.
Burt contrasted that with the Towards Healing process, which he started a year or so earlier. Initially optimistic, he’d found that it was a difficult process to tackle on his own, and he’d eventually engaged the services of a lawyer to help with negotiations.
‘The Towards Healing booklet was the most brilliantly written piece of rubbish I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it. It was that good I read it twice, you know, because I thought these people are geniuses the way they’ve written something and then you take it on board.’
He expected the process to be caring, but in the end it seemed the Church was more worried about the money. He eventually received $20,000, which included $8,000 for legal fees.
Though he had jobs through his life, he had thwarted potential opportunities as an artist despite his work being held in high regard by other professionals.
Burt has sometimes attended a support group for people who have been abused, and was struck by what had been denied them. This loss was immeasurable, he thought.
‘The protection of children is sacrosanct, it’s the first rule of a society. That’s it. So if they’re not protected then, if they’re not nurtured properly, well, what’s the hope for the bloody planet? I have my doubts about it now, but I mean, the way we’re going, it’s relative, isn’t it.’