‘The Friday afternoon ritual was the worst one for me’, Eric told the Commissioner. He was recalling his experiences at a Christian Brothers-run home in Western Australia, where he lived when he was nine. On Friday afternoons, kids would be collected from the institution and taken for weekend visits.
‘This one bloke would hold me and my brother by the hand and walk us down to the carpark … His words were always the same. “See? Nobody loves you. You’re my special boys … Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants you. That’s why nobody picks you up.” And then turn around and walk us back up.’
Eric and his younger brother were placed in the home after his father was sent to jail. It was the early 1960s, there was no government pension for single parents and his mother couldn’t support them. ‘Violence was the utmost in our house’, Eric said. His father belted him regularly, and on one occasion broke his arm, so in some ways he was unsurprised by the violence he encountered at the Christian Brothers home.
Physical abuse was endemic there. So was sexual abuse. Eric was sexually assaulted by more than one Brother. The kids around him were also routinely being sexually abused. ‘Overall the whole place was rife with it’, he said.
He developed a way of disassociating that allowed him to get through what was happening: ‘When people were doing things to my body, my mind would go somewhere safe’. It became a response he couldn’t shake off, he said. ‘Trying to learn to live within yourself permanently, sort of thing, is not an easy thing sometimes.’
There was no point in reporting the abuse at the time and he didn’t report it later. He eventually received compensation from the Church, though they preferred the word ‘reparation’, which described ‘how they’re doing a good Christian act towards us’.
He was also provided with counselling, and over the years has sought out other support services and programs to help him come to terms with his experiences in the home. He described to the Commissioner some of the impacts of those experiences.
‘I grew up feeling that I wasn’t good enough really … It eats away like a cancer. I done a lot of work on my self-esteem and myself, but … I still see it as clear today as I did 53 years ago when it happened. And it’s just the one thing in my life that holds me back …
‘It’s only about three years ago I stopped feeling guilty for not protecting my younger brother there. I was nine and he was six. It took me 50 years to realise hey, it wasn’t my job to protect him, much as I wanted to. Him and I just can’t talk about it …
‘I can sit here and say it was wrong, it was hurtful and it’s painful and it left me with a lot of scars and that, but none of that admitting alleviates the sense of unworthiness. I used to literally believe I stole the air out of people’s lungs. I used to cut myself, I was a smasher … I just wanted to fight everybody – just the anger and the rage. I’d walk the streets, just have my hand cocked and ready to hit somebody … I was like that 24/7, for years. And you’re trying to operate in a loving caring marriage and have children while you’re doing that.’
Eric has been married for more than 40 years, and came to see the Commissioner with his wife Diane. She said their relationship has had its challenges, but their recently acquired religious belief has made a big difference. ‘I’m really proud of him for the amount of stuff he’s come through. If we hadn’t become Christians, we wouldn’t be together’, she told the Commissioner. She said their faith has been ‘very helpful’, and Eric agreed. The church they attend is a ‘good healthy’ place, he said.
‘I can just sit back and relax and grow and be nurtured, and I think that’s having a lot of effect on me now …
‘I’m seeing hope that I can finally crack that last … My life ends and begins at the boys’ home, at nine years of age. I don’t have any memories of my own before nine. I have people who told me what I did before I was nine, but they’re not my memories. It’s someone relating memories to me. And I want to change that.’
Eric believes that while there is now more awareness about child abuse, that doesn’t mean it’s easier to talk about.
‘In my demographic – where I’m an Australian male, so old, construction work, ANZAC sort of background – there’s becoming a greater understanding but less spoken about it. If you become teary or what we call touchy-feely, well, you’re a horse’s hoof, like you’re gay, because you’re sharing your emotions with somebody … You do not talk about this. Laughed out of town, you really are. Yet the guys who are doing the laughing are hurting just as much as you.’
As well, he said, it still carries a stigma. ‘It’s been recognised as a sign of filthiness. Only dirty kids have that happen to them.’ He points to what happened when he and Diane applied to become foster parents. ‘When they found out I was an abuse victim, they didn’t give us children.’ They weren’t told why, but he later read in the social worker’s notes that it was because of the percentage of people who’ve been abused who later become abusers. ‘While that’s a fact of life, it’s not an essential fact’, he said. He believes social workers and others in health and welfare services need to be better educated about child abuse and its impacts, hard as these are to fully explain.
‘Having come through it, it’s almost like that secret club, when you come through it, or have been through it – that you belong to it, you don’t want to belong to it but you belong to a secret club of victims, and nobody outside of that club can fully understand.’
Eric told the Commissioner he has forgiven his abusers. ‘Forgiving I find is all right, the forgetting is something that just doesn’t come easy. And the more I study about it the more I think it’s not supposed to be that way either, otherwise you don’t learn by mistakes, you don’t learn how to help others.’