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Denis Keith's story

Denis was made a ward of the state at the age of three, in the 1950s, and by the time he was nine he’d lived in three different children’s homes in Melbourne. Extreme cruelty, severe neglect and all forms of abuse were the norm. Catholic nuns ran these homes. Denis learned to keep his head down and he recognised who was coming by their footsteps.

‘Predatory ones were at night, where the walk was softer and not as pronounced.’

Some of the nuns would fondle Denis. They would also make him fondle them. His main abuser, Sister Clare, was at his previous children’s home. A novice nun, Sister Hunter, witnessed some of the physical abuse Sister Clare perpetrated.

‘Sister Hunter drew the courage to go to Mother Superior and share her concerns … Anyway, Sister Clare, who was the one that caused most of the damage, was moved on.’

When Denis was nine he was fostered by a family.

‘To come out of that, and see your first dog, your first horse and your first cat at the age of nine. And to know that there’s kids walking around with different clothes on every day. And they’ve got these weird things that are called toys, and there’s lollies and there’s a Christmas and a birthday. And, “Gee, look. Those people are doing nice things to the kids”. So when mixing with my peers at the age of nine onwards … I had a lot of socialisation problems.’

Denis’s foster father was strict, and he also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was often violent. Denis was made to do a lot of manual labour. ‘It goes on and on but it was better than where I was.’

Later, Denis was adopted by his foster parents. At the age of around 16 he was sexually abused by his adoptive mother.

At 14, Denis couldn’t read properly and until he was 21, he couldn’t speak properly. He grew up being told he was a ‘dunce’ and that nothing good would come of him. But after completing Year 10 he got an apprenticeship and his grades flourished.

He then taught himself to play several musical instruments and became a prize-winning sportsman. In his late 20s, he started studying to become a minister. He was a clergyman for many years and has since retired.

However, life was difficult. Denis tried to kill himself when he was 17, and again about 20 years later. He had three relationships with women that ended, and he was left with the feeling that he was too trusting.

Denis described feeling a profound lack of self-worth throughout his life. He abused alcohol on and off, and has been prescribed medication to treat his mental health issues. He hadn’t disclosed the sexual abuse until about 10 years before coming to the Royal Commission. Prior to that he hadn’t fully understood what sexual abuse meant nor that he had, in fact, been abused.

Denis has received a small compensation sum from the Catholic Church. ‘I wanted to have a voice … I finally got to the stage where I just said to them, “Well, you need to be accountable” – and the biggest fear I had, which isn’t as strong today, was that I wouldn’t be believed because I had no proof. Until we located Sister Hunter who backed up everything I’d said … They tried to keep her quiet.’

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