One legacy of the abuse Clarence experienced as a child in institutional care in the 1960s is that for much of his life he has been illiterate.
When Clarence was eight, his mother was found to be ‘unfit’ to look after him and his siblings, and they were removed from her care. Clarence was told he was being sent away to be educated. The explanation made sense to him, as in the small Victorian country town where his family lived, it wasn’t unusual for children to go to boarding school.
‘That was a standard thing in the country. People go to another place to get educated’, Clarence recalled.
Instead, Clarence and some of his siblings were placed in a children’s home run by Catholic nuns. ‘Now I know it was an orphanage. At the time I didn’t. I thought I was going to boarding school.’
Clarence suffered physical and psychological abuse from nuns at the home. He was also sexually abused.
One of his roles at the home was to act as a ‘parlour boy’.
‘That was someone who opened the door and said, “Welcome, come in, sit down and I’ll go and get Sister so and so’’’, he said.
Clarence would go and find the nun, then go to the kitchen and organise the tea tray and deliver it to the nun and her visitor. The job allowed him to roam the institution unsupervised, which meant he could sneak visits to his brothers and sisters in the nursery. But it was also an opportunity for others. As he described the abuse that happened then, ‘older people took advantage of me’.
‘At the time I didn’t tell anybody about it, because that was how it worked’, he said.
In the early 2000s, Clarence contacted the Catholic Church in his home town. ‘I rang someone to say that things weren’t right.’
That call led to sessions with a counsellor, and eventually to a meeting with representatives of the Church. There were several nuns present, from the order that managed the orphanage. And there was a psychologist, Robert Davidson, who collected Clarence and drove him to the meeting. Throughout the mediation process Clarence believed Davidson was his advocate. It was only later he found out that Davidson was representing the Church.
Clarence went to the meeting very clear about what he wanted to get out of it.
‘I said, “I need to learn to read and write, please”. I said, “I’m illiterate”.’ He was told he’d be given $3000 to buy a computer.
He also made it ‘distinctly clear’ that he needed money and support to help him look after his brothers and sisters. Like him they have ongoing needs as a result of their time in care. ‘I was reassured that that was okay. The $3000 was to get me started so I would go off and learn to read and write … They basically saw me out the door and said, “Don’t worry Clarence, everything’s going to be fixed up and it’ll all be all right”.’
Clarence bought the computer, and has learned to read and write. ‘I’ve done my best’, he said. ‘I’m a self-taught person. Am I an educated person? No, I’m not.’
But he didn’t hear any more from the Church and when he got in touch with them he was told, ‘No, that’s it’.
Clarence is now being supported by an advocate who has contacted the Church on his behalf. Six months after writing a letter asking for the matter to be revisited, they are yet to receive a response.
They are prepared to wait in the hope that as time passes the Royal Commission’s work will contribute to a change in the Church’s attitude. But Clarence does feel some urgency.
‘I’d like my matter resolved before my mother dies’, he told the Commissioner. ‘That’s important for me.’ She is now in her seventies. Clarence believes that she has also been treated unjustly. ‘My mother wasn’t unfit, and her name should be cleared.’ As well, she was told her children would be given a good education and a better life. But the reality was very different.
‘You walk out of the place a retard, virtually.’