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Dennis John's story

Dennis first got into trouble with the law in the late 1960s, when he was six. He was one of a large family, living Sydney. His parents separated when he was young and when Dennis was nine, he was placed in care, in a group home in regional New South Wales.

He was in his early 50s when he spoke to the Commissioner, and 25 years into a life sentence for his role in a violent crime. He didn’t expect he would ever be released – he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be. ‘I think I’m institutionalised. I feel safer here.’

Speaking about the past, Dennis found it hard to recall details. Names, dates and timeframes escaped him. However, he had not forgotten the sexual abuse he experienced at the group home, and later at a residential training centre for juvenile offenders.

The group home was run by the New South Wales Government, but it had a close relationship with a neighbouring Catholic church and the order of Brothers connected to it.

‘We used to go to church on Sundays. Everyone from each cottage – we’d march to church, and after church we’d have cakes and whatnot’, Dennis told the Commissioner. As well, the Brothers regularly visited the cottages for afternoon tea and activities with the children.

Dennis was sexually abused by at least two of these Brothers, individually, more than once. The abuse involved fondling and more – ‘Penetration and things like that.’

He reported the abuse to the housekeeper, but she simply told him to stop lying. He didn’t tell anyone else at the home after that.

Dennis isn’t sure how long he spent at the cottages. Back with his family he continued to get into trouble and was convicted for a string of offences. Before long, he ended up in another institution, this time one for juvenile offenders, not far from Sydney.

His abuser here was one of the officers at the home, Idris Palmer. Palmer would take Dennis on weekend outings to visit his wife and family, at their home nearby. Driving back to the institution, Palmer would pull over and make Dennis masturbate him. ‘He was skinny and old … I was scared of him.’ Again, Dennis tried to report the abuse. ‘No one would believe me.’

Dennis was at the institution for about six months. Afterwards he returned to his family, and ‘just continued on with life, I guess’. Education didn’t work for him, and nor did regular employment.

‘It was hard. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t get myself together … The welfare officer was always chasing me because I couldn’t get me head around things, because of the past, what’s happened. That’s what led me to trouble.’

The trouble got bigger as the years went by. He was in and out of the juvenile justice system throughout his teenage years. In his early 20s, he and others committed the crime that resulted in his lifetime incarceration.

Dennis saw a psychologist in prison, after a two-year wait. He had asked for further sessions, but these were yet to happen. During his time in jail he’d made further efforts to disclose the abuse he suffered as a child. ‘I told a number of people, but it was falling on deaf ears.’

He has no contact with his family, and no visitors. ‘I’ve been in a dark hole for many, many years, ever since I was a kid,’ he told the Commissioner. ‘I’m going to die in here.’

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