‘There was no protection there for us’, Edgar said. He was speaking about the Christian Brothers homes in Western Australia where he lived after arriving as a child migrant in the late 1940s. ‘That was the stark reality.’
Edgar was seven when he arrived in Australia. He spent three years in one Christian Brothers home, then moved to one for older boys when he was 10. Both were brutal, terrible places.
‘We were not put under the guardianship of this country. We were put in the custody of this country’, Edgar told the Commissioner.
Edgar had come from a harsh environment in Scotland but it was nothing compared to his experience at the Christian Brothers homes. Amid the daily sexual, physical and emotional abuse by the Brothers, and the state of fear and deprivation in which the boys lived, several experiences stood out for Edgar.
He was about eight or nine at the time of the first episode he recounted. It was a Saturday morning, and he’d been told to clean up a classroom. His work finished, he had to exit through the school hall. As he came down a short flight of steps that led to the hall, he heard a loud bellow and an expletive. He looked towards the sound and saw Brother McHugh standing there, furious.
‘I remember just being mesmerised by that confrontation. It was like a shockwave hit me. This Brother … was facing me and when I looked – because I was only knee high to a grasshopper – I looked straight into where his fly was undone, and all I could see was the hair from his private parts. And whilst I didn’t understand what that was all about, I then saw a friend of mine … This boy was kneeling on the mat which Brother McHugh was standing on as well; he was kneeling upright and crying. None of this meant anything to me at the time. I just saw this as a picture, an image … I was just so fearful I bolted for the door.’
The next day a group of boys went swimming in a nearby river. Edgar couldn’t swim so was splashing in the shallows when Brother McHugh waded up to him. ‘He said “Put your arms around my neck, I’m taking you over to the other side [of the river]”. I was absolutely horrified.’
But Edgar had no choice. He held on to Brother McHugh, who swam out to the middle of the river, where the water was deep. ‘Unannounced he broke my grip from around his neck and before I’d even taken a breath I was on my way to the bottom’, Edgar recalled.
Edgar struggled frantically and realised later that was what prevented him rising to the surface. ‘I remember the colours. The light green, the dark green, the black.’ At some point he stopped fighting. It felt as if his chest was about to explode. He gave up. And as he did, he broke through the water. The tide had pushed him closer to the shallows. Two boys who could barely swim themselves grabbed him. Between them they pushed and kicked him along until he could find his way in.
Edgar’s memory of this event was buried for many years. But it showed itself in an ongoing fear of water and in flashbacks and nightmares that as an adult he believed were due to his experience in the army during the Vietnam War. It was only repeated sessions with a psychiatrist that eventually revealed the truth.
There is no doubt in Edgar’s mind that Brother McHugh attempted to murder him. And that if he had been successful, no one would have known or cared. He recalled another incident, where a boy was killed after he fell from a cart which then rolled over the top of him. At the time people thought the boy had died within a day or so. But it later emerged that the boy had lain in the infirmary for three weeks or more before he died. He hadn’t been seen by a doctor, because the Brothers didn’t want the accident to be investigated. ‘Such was the power of these people’, Edgar said.
Edgar has been part of an advocacy group for nearly 30 years, seeking support and redress for child migrants. He had formally told his story three times before. He said he hoped that this time he would be heard and that the Royal Commission would put protocols in place to ensure such treatment of children could never occur again.
He said the failure of care extended well beyond the Christian Brothers. The boys left the homes with nothing – no skills or education, no resources, guidance or support.
‘You could depend and rely on absolutely no one. There was no one there. The welfare wasn’t there’, he said. ‘Children left these institutions bereft of any chance at life.’
Menial low-paid jobs and exploitation were the only options for most of them, and the struggle to survive is one reason why many remained silent for years about their childhood experiences.
‘By the time we got ourselves established in our own little ways, whatever they may have been, you barely had time to think about what had happened, you were just grateful that you’d made it’, Edgar said.
‘There were so many kids that suicided during those early formative years; so many died through stupid accidents that if they’d [had] any kind of education they could have avoided. So many were ill, or into drugs, or recidivist criminals of a minor nature, in and out of jail ... We were bereft of any social ability when we left those institutions. Society was a strange place for us to be. We didn’t fit. We did not fit in any way, shape or form.’
Edgar’s own life was turned around when he found a career in the army. He is married with children, but has never spoken of his experiences to his family. ‘I don’t dare tell them’, he said. ‘They don’t want to know that their father’s been abused. How’s it going to make them feel?’
He told the Commissioner he is amazed by how many former child migrants went on to become successful. ‘But for every handful that did that, a bucketful went down the drain. So that’s a pretty hefty price to pay.’