When his parents separated in the late 1950s, Conrad went with his mother and sister to live with his grandparents and uncle. Nobody was happy with the living arrangements, particularly the uncle with whom Conrad shared a room. He was a returned soldier who had terrible nightmares and he resented having to suddenly share with an eight-year-old boy.
In the move, Conrad lost all that was familiar to him. ‘I was taken from my father, home, friends, network, country, surroundings, relatives and just about everything I knew, even the family dog and pushbike.’
A decision was soon made that Conrad would go to a Catholic boarding school run by the De La Salle Brothers. He remained there for five years and only went home for school holidays. Visiting was strictly limited to monthly Sundays but Conrad’s uncle, who was a seaman, popped in unannounced at irregular intervals during weeks of shore leave, a habit unhappily tolerated by the Brothers. Conrad said that with hindsight these visits might have protected him from worse abuse than that which he experienced.
Physical punishment in the school was extreme and it wasn’t uncommon for boys to get upwards of 10 straps every day. Over two years, Conrad heard Brother Victorinus in an adjacent classroom beating boys for the entire lesson. ‘From the time the class started to when it finished all you heard was the strap.’
Brothers’ straps were reinforced with pieces of timber, rubber and linoleum. A local boot-maker made bespoke straps for Victorinus with hacksaw blades and pennies sewn into pieces of leather. In the week before ‘visiting Sunday’, the Brothers took care not to strap boys on parts of their bodies that would be visible.
Conrad told the Commissioner that Brother Julian’s abuse of boys was carried out under the guise of helping them bathe. Before they progressed to showering, very young boys would bathe two at a time in a tub. During these times Brother Julian would insist on washing and examining their genitals, and towelling them down afterwards. He made constant reference to which of the boys needed to be circumcised and on one occasion drew Conrad’s foreskin back to the extent that it caused bleeding. When Conrad told his mother about Julian’s constant talk of circumcision, she laughed. He then tried to speak to an older family friend but was silenced.
‘The thing that took me so long to realise was nothing he did was … painful or unpleasant. It was done to everyone. You didn’t feel like you were being singled out so in comparison to what happened at the rest of the school, that was probably the least of it.’
Conrad said Victorinus became his object of hatred, something he carried still. ‘He played capricious mind games. You never knew where you were with him ... When he was in his best mood you were always more cautious of him because you never knew when he was in a good mood you might get a little bit too jovial and slip up. The rules - well you never knew the rules. They varied.’ Most days for the six years he was there, Conrad got between ‘10 and 50 whacks, and it was a boarding school so it didn’t finish at the end of the school day’.
When he was 14 Conrad returned to live with his family. He attended the local government school where punishment ‘was a bargain’. One day he drank some of his mother’s Scotch and though he didn’t like it, said ‘it took me to the world I wanted to be in’.
From then on he’d set off each day with a hipflask of Scotch. ‘That’s how I got through school and the rest of my life until I was 40.’ Giving up drinking underscored the inner rage he felt about what had happened at the school. ‘I realised if I saw anyone do that to my kids I would have killed him.’
His main reason for coming to the Royal Commission, he said, was so that people knew. ‘If you don’t learn from what’s happened it will continue or can creep back in.’ But he thought things were different now. ‘These people got away with it because they could. They were held up as pillars of the community, they were men of god, they were this, they were that, and in actual fact they were really quite unpleasant fanatical fundamentalists.’