Ernst is one of several brothers. In the 1960s, when he was little, his father worked internationally, and his mother often travelled with him – ‘and that’s the reason why we were left … at the boarding school’, Ernst told the Commissioner. Ernst was about nine at the time.
It was a Christian Brothers school in regional Victoria. Ernst recalled the day he was dropped off by his parents. They were met by the headmaster, Brother Menadue, who put his arm round Ernst and hugged him very tightly.
‘He actually squeezed me that hard that I nearly cried, and I’d only met him for 10 minutes, and he said to my parents that we’ll make men out of these boys.’
Ernst and his brothers were placed in different dormitories. There were about 40 boys in Ernst’s dormitory, and their master was Brother Hazlitt. At night, Hazlitt would come round with a torch and take boys from their beds into his office.
‘My bed was right next to it, like one inch away, and I could hear things going on.’ At first Ernst thought Hazlitt took boys to his room to comfort them. ‘I thought that’s good, if you cry they’ll look after you’, he said. Later he understood that was not what was happening. He heard crying, ‘different things’, and noticed that sometimes boys didn’t come back – their beds were still empty in the morning.
Ernst himself wasn’t taken to Hazlitt’s room. But he was sexually abused by Brother Menadue, one Sunday. There were only a few students at the school, as most returned to their families at the weekends. It was after lunch, and the kitchen staff had gone home. ‘That day on a Sunday is the best day to attack kids. There’s no one else there to stop them.’
Ernst had cold sores at the time, the result he believes of the poor food at the school. Brother Menadue sent Ernst to his office, saying he would give him something to fix the sores. When Ernst arrived he found another Brother there as well, who Menadue introduced as Brother Robert.
The sexual abuse that followed was prolonged and violent. Ernst was drugged and moved to another room, where he fell in and out of consciousness. He was raped by Menadue, Roberts and a third Brother. There was another boy in the room with him, also sexually assaulted. Ernst could hear the Brothers: ‘They’re all talking like it’s a party’. There were blue flashes from a camera, as someone took photos. After a while Ernst was drugged again and passed out.
When he finally woke up and managed to escape from the room he found himself in, Ernst made his way to his brothers. They’d been looking for him since Sunday, he was told. It was now Tuesday.
Ernst didn’t report the abuse to anyone. His father, a strict Catholic, would never have believed him, he said. During the following months he was physically abused – ‘Over the whole period we were whipped and beaten and had to clean bathrooms naked with toothbrushes and so on’ – but he was not sexually assaulted at the school again.
The following year, Ernst and his brothers moved to another Christian Brothers school. He joined cubs, and his older brothers joined scouts, and this led to him being sexually abused a second time. A scouts meeting was held at his house one night and Ernst, too young to participate, went to bed. When the scouts took a break for a drink and a snack the scout leader, Marius Vinson, made his way to Ernst’s bedroom and sexually assaulted him. Afterwards Vinson threatened Ernst, and told him not to tell anyone. Ernst obeyed.
‘He was a really violent person, and strong, you understand?’
Some 20 years later, Vinson called Ernst at home, Ernst still doesn’t know why. ‘My wife says to me after, you look like you’ve seen a ghost … It did my head in.’
His wife didn’t know about what Vinson had done. At that point, Ernst hadn’t told anyone about his experiences of abuse – ‘Because it’d make you feel weak, gay or bad if we told people – that’s how I felt in that time. … And now I don’t care, because it should come out.’
Ernst first disclosed after his second wife found him trying to end his life, in the late 2000s. It was one of multiple attempts he’d made. She urged him to seek help. They separated soon after, but Ernst did begin seeing a psychologist, and as a result wrote to his wife revealing that he’d been abused as a child.
When his father died, a few years later, Ernst reported the abuse to police. After that he also engaged a lawyer to help him seek compensation from the Christian Brothers, who offered him $20,000. Ernst considered the amount inadequate and rejected it.
‘[Their offer] says I was touched up, but not bloody drugged or raped. How could they say that?’
He’s now working with another law firm to press his case for a larger sum. His dealings with police have also been unsatisfactory. He felt challenged and disbelieved because there wasn’t documentary evidence to support his recollection of events at the Christian Brothers’ school. But he was hopeful that Vinson was soon to be arrested.
‘He’s alive in Queensland and I want to get him … If I don’t get any help I’m going to organise to get him myself, because I’ve got nothing to lose. That’s how I feel, understand?’
Ernst lives a quiet life in a regional town. With PTSD and other mental health issues, he is unable to work and receives a disability pension and mobility allowance. ‘I don’t talk to many people and I paint continuously … I lock my room and tell people if they’ve got problems, go to a psychiatrist. Don’t come in.’