Clifton's story

As a nine-year-old, in the early 1940s, Clifton was placed with his brothers in an Anglican Church-run boys’ orphanage in Perth. His father had gone away for work and his mother couldn’t care for the boys on her own. During the two years Clifton spent at the orphanage, there were several men in particular he did his best to avoid. ‘There was three that I’d dodge at all costs. I’d take off – just get out of the way’, he said.

One of these was the director of the institution, Arthur Richards. He punished the boys by beating them with a cane. ‘You had to drop your pants and bend over and take it on your bare bum’, Clifton said. There was a view among the boys that Richards enjoyed administering these punishments. Clifton recalled boys swimming in the river, their naked bodies marked with bruises from Richards’ assaults. ‘Richards was a pretty savage person once he had that cane in his hand … If you couldn’t bend over, he’d just slam the cane at you and whack you where he could.’

Another was Tom Pendle, one of the domestic staff. One night just before bedtime Clifton was outside on his own and encountered Pendle. They exchanged a few words and then Pendle grabbed hold of Clifton and pulled him into his work room, in an area some distance from the main complex. Clifton tried to break free and yelled for help but Pendle told him no one would hear him. Then he sexually assaulted Clifton. ‘This whole episode seemed to me to take forever, as I was struggling for a long time’, Clifton said in a statement to the Commission.

When Pendle eventually released Clifton, he told him to return the next night. Clifton didn’t go, then or ever. ‘[Pendle] pestered me for a long time afterwards. But I stuck with my mates … I steered clear of him all the time.’

The third man Clifton avoided was the local vicar, Samuel Holt.

Holt regularly visited the orphanage. He’d take the boys on drives and other outings. One time when the car was nearly full of passengers, Holt called out to Clifton to join them as well. He said Clifton could sit on his lap. When they got to a straight stretch of road, Holt told Clifton to take the wheel. As Clifton steered the car, Holt dropped his hands to Clifton’s groin and began to fondle him. An older boy sitting beside them grabbed the steering wheel, forcing Holt to lift his hands back onto it. Afterwards, the boy told Clifton to make sure he sat in the back seat from then on.

There were other incidents with Holt. Once after another outing he took the group of boys back to his home, and tricked Clifton into going into his bedroom with him. Clifton managed to escape. ‘Forever after that if I saw Holt first, I’d be gone. I’d hide somewhere.’ Holt also turned up in the dormitories at night, walking around and touching boys. ‘I’d just pull the blankets over my head and the only thing that’d be visible would be my nose.’

Clifton has been married to his wife Bernice for 60 years. They met when he was 12. But Clifton didn’t speak about his experiences at the orphanage to her. He didn’t disclose them to anyone. ‘I was ashamed of it for a long time’, Clifton explained. ‘I was very ashamed of it, and I felt disgusted in myself that I put myself in a position where [Pendle] could do what he did to me.’

Several years ago the couple attended a conference held at the site of the old orphanage. It was a weekend conference, and on the Saturday afternoon Clifton decided to revisit the area where he’d been assaulted by Pendle. ‘I was going to bury this thing out of my brain, because it was just there all the time.’

When he got there, he found the area had been demolished.

‘My brain just went absolutely crazy’, he recalled. ‘It all came back so devastatingly … I couldn’t understand how my brain could retain all that happened in such detail. I could see the guy standing there, I could describe him.’

Clifton returned to his room, unable to respond to the friends who spoke to him on the way.

‘I got back to the room and as soon as I closed the door I burst out howling, and I couldn’t tell Bernice what had happened to me.’ Eventually, Bernice fetched the priest attending the event, who came and sat with Clifton.

‘I still continued to howl’, Clifton said. ‘It took me about an hour to settle down. And I’ve never cried like that, except for 1944 when I went back to the bed [after the assault], and all my mates were around my bed trying to find out what the heck was wrong with me, and I couldn’t tell them – I was so ashamed and disgusted. I just couldn’t comprehend what the guy had done, or why he would do it.’

The couple left the next day. ‘I was damn glad to get away from the place.’ The priest didn’t speak to Clifton again, or try to find out what had distressed him. Clifton found that ‘very disappointing’.

It wasn’t until Bernice helped Clifton prepare his statement for the Royal Commission that she learned the details of his abuse. They have since told their children as well. Bernice persuaded Clifton to contact the Anglican Church and consequently he was put in touch with a psychologist. He approached a law firm with a view to seeking compensation, but the idea of being assessed by medical professionals employed by the Church put him off.

Since the weekend of his breakdown, he has suffered constant flashbacks. It has been hard to sleep. He is always tired and has difficulty concentrating. To calm himself he recites the Lord’s Prayer and imagines going fishing – ‘Lately I have eased up on the prayer and just gone fishing’.

Counselling has helped, he said. ‘I no longer believe it was my fault.’ But the trauma of Pendle’s assault is always with him. ‘I cannot understand how I could have retained in such detail the terrible act of 1944, and how it can affect me 70 years later.’

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