Carly, along with her brother and sister, spoke to the Royal Commission on behalf of their youngest brother, Denis, who was born in the 1960s with an intellectual disability.
The family adhered closely to the teachings of the Catholic Church, Carly said. It was an era when people didn’t have high expectations of those with disabilities, and when the St John of God Brothers said they could care for seven-year-old Denis in a residential home, their offer was taken up. For the next 30 or so years Denis lived in various residential and community-based homes overseen by the Brothers.
No one knew when Denis was first sexually abused because he didn’t have the verbal skills to tell them, but the siblings suspected it was from his early years in care. Denis would often refuse to return to the Brothers after weekends spent with the family. File notes obtained later documented Denis’s difficulty sleeping, that he was often ‘very restless’ and that he spoke only of going home.
During his weekends at home, Denis would wake screaming from nightmares and he often insisted on sleeping under the bed. He developed overtly sexualised behaviour and habits, like cleaning his anus with a toothbrush. His siblings said they now felt guilty that they hadn’t known or suspected anything was amiss. ‘We saw the behaviour but we didn’t ever link it to being [sexually abused]’, Carly said. ‘And I think one of the issues is that people with disabilities, when they display those behaviours, it is seen as being part of the disability.’
Although the family didn’t suspect sexual abuse, a succession of events in the late 1990s led them to ask Denis whether anything had ever happened to him. A youth worker had been driving with some young people when they passed a St John of God home and one of the boys in the car broke down and disclosed that he’d been sexually abused by numerous Brothers when he’d lived in the home.
The youth worker reported the abuse to the CEO of St John of God who in turn reported it to Victoria Police. As news of the abuse became public and more victims came forward, the Brothers called a meeting for the parents of those in their care. Carly accompanied her mother to the meeting, at which the approach of the Brothers was one of intimidation and denial.
‘What they were trying to do was say, “This never happened. They’re telling fibs. If we’d known this was happening we would have done something. So if we didn’t know it was happening, it couldn’t have been happening”. Which was an absolute lie.’
Although the Brothers mainly accommodated boys with disabilities, they also took in wards of the state. The boy who’d initially disclosed the abuse had been a state ward and was able to report several of the Brothers. Denis initially said, ‘No’ when asked if anything had happened to him, however several days after being asked he broke down and named six Brothers who’d abused him.
Most of those who’d been abused weren’t able to provide verbal or written statements to Victoria Police. ‘First of all they went to a child exploitation unit of that kind who revealed it, but because he was 16, they put it through to the rape squad at the CIB. And they really left it to the organisation to refer victims to the CIB. So it had been 10 months and the CIB had done nothing.’
Carly told the Commissioner it was a source of frustration that police were waiting for people to come to them and weren’t initiating contact. When she accompanied Denis for his police interview there were no anatomical dolls or other props to help him communicate his story. It was an uneven match, she thought, between the Brothers’ words and those of Denis and the other young men. The legal system wasn’t set up to respond to people like Denis.
‘And I don’t know what the answer is, but there has to be some way they can have their own voices heard and believed.’
A class action brought against the St John of God Brothers resulted in plaintiffs, including Denis, being awarded compensation, but payment wasn’t the point, Carly said. ‘It was never about the compensation. It was about making it public and making them really – I mean, what we’d love is for them not to be in Australia. But it was never about the money. But we knew that if we went for the money that would hurt them because they didn’t really care about anything else.’
Beside the money paid in compensation, the Brothers never acknowledged the harm they’d done. It was estimated scores of Brothers had sexually abused those in their care over decades, but few were called to account within the criminal justice system.
The Brothers had also profited from the labour of those in their care. ‘They took all the full pensions, for every boy that was there’, Carly said. ‘So imagine how much money that was. They also worked in the sheltered workshop for them that they had the contracts for. They also worked in a nursery that they had the contracts for. Those boys actually made them a lot of money.’
Carly asked for and received Denis’s long service leave when he left the Brothers, but she doubted anyone else had, and it hadn’t been offered. Nor had Denis ever been paid sick leave, annual leave or superannuation through his decades of work.
‘They’ve never been made accountable, that’s the issue for us. They just gave money and then [the problem] was all gone.’