‘He told me, “I want to hear your confession. Come round to the presbytery … Kneel down, close your eyes in prayer and repeat after me, Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …”
‘This went on for three or four weeks – and there was always agitated movement within his cassock.’
Eric was 11. Several years earlier he’d endured sexual abuse at a Melbourne Salvation Army boys’ home, and now he was on his knees before an agitated priest – and pretending to close his eyes.
‘I used to sneak a look and I saw this movement, and didn’t make anything of it. But on the fourth or fifth occasion he exposed himself and openly masturbated in front of me. I was kneeling down in front of him and he was centimetres from me.
‘He was always asking me about sex. “What did you do at the boys’ home? Are the boys playing with each other? What did your superiors think? Did they play? Did they like? Did you like?” I was totally embarrassed.
‘And after each of these sessions he’d give me two shillings.’
Born during World War II, Eric had been abandoned by his mother when he was one month old. At age six, his foster mother also let him go. ‘She was having disputes with her second husband about me, and they decided they’d put me in a home.’
It wasn’t a welcoming environment. The boys were forced to march constantly and were beaten by many staff – ‘And the food was junk’. The staff told the children to lie to inspectors and, if questioned, to say, ‘It's a great place here, the food's good, yes it’s terrific’.
In fact, Eric reckons the bad diet was responsible for a disturbing malady.
‘I had a lot of boils on the back of my leg, and they were really painful. Captain Smith told me to pull down my pants and lie face down. He was applying what I thought was an ointment of some sort. And this stopped after a while and I looked around – and he was masturbating. He discharged all over me and, as he cleaned me up, he penetrated his finger into me.
‘I was so confused, I didn’t know what he was doing. I was seven or eight … He said, “Don’t say a word, just get yourself ready and go to school”.’
After that, Eric says, Captain Smith was always loitering around the showers and trying to hold his hand.
The ablutions area was particularly dangerous. Jones, a lay worker at the home, was ‘a mongrel, violent, a paedophile. When we had showers, he used to make you bend over, and he’d part the cheeks of your backside to see if you’d cleaned yourself – and he’d feel your genitals at the same time’.
Thankfully, Eric’s foster mother hadn’t abandoned him completely. There were some weekend visits, and he recalls eventually confronting her about the home. ‘I said, “Mum, why am I there? It’s terrible, I hate the place”.’ Her response was swift. Eric was removed on a Friday and enrolled in a Catholic parish school on Monday.
Initially, the change was uplifting. Back with his foster mother, ‘I was comfortable with her, though she was hard at times and she made her point known how good she was to me … Anyway, here I was, out in the world at a Catholic school; the nuns were great, the fear was gone, the shouting and bashings were gone’.
Eric was at pains in his session with the Royal Commission to cite teachers and carers who treated their charges well. There was Father Andrew, however, who started badgering Eric about coming to confession.
‘Watching him masturbating immediately brought back the memory of Captain Smith, and I was horrified. And it was soon after that I had the breakdown. I couldn’t stay awake, vomiting green mucus, I didn’t eat for nine days and I was hospitalised.’
Eric didn’t try to tell his foster mother or the doctors about Father Andrew. ‘The norm of the time was that people dressed in the cloth were honourable, and they would be believed – and anyway, who are you? … If I’d told them what Father Andrew was doing to me, I’m sure in his report the doctor would just have said this was a symptom of my breakdown.’
In any event, Father Andrew had decided Eric should be moved on. ‘When I came back after eight weeks in hospital, he said I should be sent to another school, because I didn’t get on with school life. But that was rubbish.’
Eric eventually found himself at a high school that has since acquired a reputation for sexual abuse. However, he managed to avoid further molestation, then ‘ran away’ and began his adult life.
Moving interstate in his 20s, Eric married and had two children. But the marriage ended and he believes this was because his wife never knew his story, and the trauma made it difficult for him to have a normal loving and caring relationship.
The need to share what had happened eventually drove Eric to seek out other survivors from the boys’ home, and to organise regular reunions. This experience convinced him that the institution had failed in areas other than trust and abuse. ‘Most of the boys, I’d say 90 per cent of them, are illiterate. If you couldn’t excel at the literary studies, you were sent to the opportunity class – which just meant picking up papers or cleaning garden beds.’
He has obtained compensation in later years from the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. However, the latter made what Eric considered a paltry offer. ‘They said, “There’s nothing in your medical reports that says the cause of your breakdown was Father Andrew”. But what 11-year-old could make a mature conclusion like that? They used the files to lessen the amount … and when I came home, it hit me hard.’
Eric says he then wrote to one of Australia’s most senior Catholic clergymen, expressing his discontent. The clergyman replied that he would keep Eric in his prayers.