‘I wasn’t in an institution because I was a state ward, but … because I was a bad little bugger … [Actually], I don’t think I was. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to be in the navy … It took me a while to wake up, but I woke up, and because of what institutions I’ve been in, I’ve wasted half my life in the system.’
Col told the Commissioner, ‘I got put in the institution because I had sex with my girlfriend. Her family didn’t want me, because she was white Australian’. Col was 15 and his girlfriend about six months older, when he was charged with carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of 16. He has been on the sex offenders register ever since.
‘The last few days … are bringing back a lot of things that I once upon a time didn’t want to know about, or remember. Now I’m a bit older, I can handle it. I watched kids hang themselves in the frigging boys’ homes. I’ve seen rapes. Meself, I’ve been raped and I had to fight. I had to learn to fight.’
Col was ‘six stone as a kid, wringing wet … I was not into homosexuality. I did not want anyone touching me on my backside or forcing me to do anything, and the only way against anyone that was that way inclined, whether they were another kid, or whatever, was to fight’.
Col was raped repeatedly by older, much bigger boys, and one of the officers at the juvenile detention centre in New South Wales he was sent to in the late 1960s. He also had his teeth knocked out ‘because I wouldn’t bow down’.
Col was sent to a second detention centre, but by that time, he had learned what he needed to do to avoid further sexual abuse. ‘It’s like any system. You go through it, you become part of the system in a different crowd. You become the ones that control, or the ones they fear, or the ones who cop all the shit. I was in the fear.’
Col told the Commissioner that, ‘after you’ve been locked up for a while, in different places and not caring about the law or anything else, you begin to become institutionalised’. Up until his 40s, Col spent a lot of time incarcerated.
‘[You think], “I’m better off inside, having a roof over my head and a feed than I am out here, hitting someone with an iron bar or thieving, or ripping somebody off. And as you get older, you don’t become a soft cock, you just get wiser. I don’t want to hurt a living soul, you know.’
In his mid-40s Col started to see things differently. ‘I just thought, “Well, I don’t have to go to jail. I don’t have to do this … I can do something.’ He began advocating for Aboriginal rights, and helping his community. ‘When I realised I could do good, I thought, “Why not?”.’
Col had never spoken about the sexual abuse he experienced in the detention centre before he came to the Royal Commission. ‘How can I say … “Hey, Nan, I was hit over the head and had me teeth kicked out … dick stuck in me mouth and then … up the arse”, you know?’
He was nervous about coming to his private session. ‘Before I even come into this building, with what’s been going through my head the last two days, I’m glad I’m here to get this out of me … [It] made me feel sick in the belly this morning … My way of understanding, is it has to be done, whether I like it or not. It’s not going to hurt me … if this is going to help anybody’s kid.’
Col believes he is learning all the time, ‘and some of the things I’ve learned have sort of made me stop and think. Like today … I don’t care if I’m saying too much. I’m here because nobody on this frigging Earth should go through what I’ve been through …
‘Anybody that works in these institutions has to … be there for the benefit of those kids and their mental health and everything … The last thing the world needs is a dozen of me out there.’
Even though he’s an elder in his community, he’s also a registered sex offender, so it’s difficult for Col to be able to mentor Aboriginal children in schools. When he does talk to kids who are in trouble, he says to them, ‘Look, you’re better than that. Rise above that’.
At the end of his session, Col told the Commissioner, ‘Now I feel better … Once again, what’s been going through my head, I’ve got to push it all aside … That’s what I’ve gotta rise above. I’ve got to practise what I preach’.