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Eric John's story

Eric’s mother was an alcoholic, and unable to do a good job of caring for her large family. His father, a returned serviceman, was also an alcoholic. ‘They kept drinking. Throwing bottles at me, abusing me and all that.’

Their neighbor – a ‘stickybeak’, Eric said - reported the family to police. As a result, when Eric was three, in the early 1950s, he and several of his siblings were taken from their parents and placed in a Catholic orphanage in a suburb of Brisbane. He remained in institutions for the next 12 or so years.

From the orphanage Eric was sent to a state-run reformatory for boys, in regional Queensland, and from there to a group home run by an order of Catholic Brothers. He experienced deprivation, hard labour and abuse at all three institutions.

As a young child, life at the orphanage was difficult to adjust to. ‘It was a topsy-turvy world to me.’ Though the orphanage accommodated both boys and girls, they were kept apart. Eric hardly ever saw his sisters, except at occasional events like going to the pictures. Then all the children would gather in the hall and Eric could wave to them – ‘That was it’.

The food was poor quality and there wasn’t enough of it. ‘If you got food there, it was a privilege.’ When he was about 12, he asked for a job clearing out the scrap bins, so he could get the nuns’ leftovers. ‘That’s how hungry I was. I used to grab chops and veggies and I used to grab anything.’

One day when he was cleaning out the bins: ‘I was eating these sausages out of the bin, right, and I could see this priest watching me'. The priest, Father Preston, offered him some food. ‘I said I’d love some food.’ But Preston went on to grab Eric, pull his pants down and fondle his penis. ‘“Shh!” That’s what he [said]. “Take your trousers down! Further!” … What could I do? I was scared. Petrified.’ It happened several times, to Eric and his friend. ‘He got us about three or four times but then we ran away.’

The boys didn’t report Preston. ‘We were too frightened. There was a lot of physical abuse at the home … I was really frightened of the nuns. They belted you with a strap or got you across the face’, Eric said in a written statement. As well, they doubted it would make a difference.

Each time Eric ran away from the orphanage he was brought back by police. He kept trying. Eventually he was moved to the reformatory. He was put to work here, doing farm work on the institution’s property. ‘I didn’t mind that. I loved farm work.’ But the staff’s treatment of the boys was brutal. One assault left Eric with permanently damaged hearing.

He ran away again, trying to get back to his mother. This time after he was picked up he was sent to hospital for an EEG test, to measure his brain activity. ‘They thought I had a criminal mind … I said “No, no, I’m not a criminal, I was just brought up wrong”. They couldn’t understand.’

At 13, Eric was moved to the group home. Here he was sexually abused again, by a man he had liked, Brother Michael. ‘I fell for how friendly he treated me … He was like a father to me. I’d never had a father. I trusted him, sort of. Then he went overboard.’ Eric didn’t report the abuse. ‘Again I was too frightened of what might happen … I was afraid others wouldn’t believe me and that he would then pick on me.’

Eric was abused by Brother Michael throughout his stay at the home, a period of about two and a half years. Finally, he ran away and no one brought him back. He lived with his mum for a while and got into some bad company. ‘I had no other choice. They were the people I could understand. They were people who’d had a hard life too.’

In the years that followed Eric worked around Australia. He wasn’t scared of work, he said. ‘I loved workin’. But the thing that tormented me was when I went to get a job I didn’t have no files or anything about myself.’

Accessing his records has continued to be a problem for Eric. When he applied for redress through the Forde Inquiry, many years later, he was told his files had been destroyed in the Brisbane Floods. He got two pages of records from his time at the orphanage, and the documents relating to the rest of his time in care but with most of the content redacted. ‘It would have helped me if my records told me what had happened to me but a lot was just blocked out.’

Eric received a compensation payment and also access to a counsellor for three months. He found that very helpful. ‘He brought a lot of loss and resentment out of me … I improved a lot.’ Eric had been an alcoholic for most of his life – ‘I lived in the pub. It’s all I did’ – and with the support of the counsellor, he was able to give up drinking.

‘Previously I drank a lot of alcohol and would get angry and cry and have tantrums like a child. I was getting older and I thought, what’s the use of holding onto it? And so I just had to let it go. My partner Kate has also helped me and I gave up drinking five years ago.’

Eric still gets depressed sometimes - ‘but it’s not a dangerous one. It’s just a sadness'. He has many regrets. ‘I wish we could have had the schooling that we never had, or learnt a trade or hobby … I’ve got nothing to show for it all.’ He believes he should have received an apology from the government, and more compensation. He wishes he could afford more sessions with his counsellor. And he’d like to take Kate on a ‘nice holiday’, he said.

‘Just to get away from all this and come back refreshed. Kate really deserves a holiday. She’s helped me a lot, and suffered.’

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