Growing up, Ernst ‘didn’t have a clue what a family was’. For 10 years from the age of six he lived in a government-run children’s home in Victoria. He’d been sent there with his four siblings in the late 1950s and in the decade Ernst was in the home, he remembered seeing his mother twice and his father about four times.
Separated from his siblings, Ernst recalled being sexually abused over about a four-year period from the age of 10. The abuse occurred when he was sent with other boys to stay on the large farming property of Rupert Hacksbury in regional Victoria.
‘He’d not only take me, but he’d take other kids out there almost every weekend’, Ernst said. ‘Out to his property, yes, and you’d go there and he’d, he’d come into your room and do all the things that you don’t want to know about. And that went on for ages, and at the time, and – I still can’t believe like, I can sit here and say this – I didn’t know it was wrong.’
At about the age of 12, Ernst ‘started to ask questions’ and he complained about the abuse to Hacksbury’s father, then a prominent leader in the community.
‘I still remember, I walked out and I, and I just started to talk to him, and he just turned around and flattened me and, you know, told me, “Don’t you ever come back out”.’
When Ernst returned to the home, he was called into the manager’s office and asked about ‘this garbage you’ve been saying’. When Ernst repeated the complaint the manager ‘dropped’ him then locked him in an underground cell.
‘I got locked in there for four days and never got any food until the fourth day, and he, and they came, that [manager] fellow came in and said to me, “You got, you still got a mouth?” And I said, “I’m telling – what I told you is the truth”. I got another flogging, and then he, inside that thing, he locked me in a wardrobe, and I stayed in the wardrobe for about 19 hours.’
Ernst made an attempt at telling another staff member, ‘and do you know what he did? The next week he tried to interfere with me himself’. Finally another of the cottage parents that Ernst told ‘put a stop to it’.
Ernst didn’t again visit Hacksbury’s property, but many of the activities he enjoyed like playing football were suddenly banned to him, as were other privileges like going out during holiday periods.
For decades after he left the home, Ernst tried to forget about the abuse. While he built a successful career he struggled in some aspects of the care of his children and could never bathe them or change their nappies. If his wife was absent from the home at work, ‘the lady next door used to come in and do nappies for me because I, I couldn’t do it’.
In the early 2000s Ernst was asked by a lawyer if he’d support the accounts of other ex-residents of the home in a bid to bring a class action against the Victorian government. He agreed.
‘The biggest mistake I ever made’, he said. ‘It ruined me, ruined me life, it ruined me career. I went off the rails, went nuts, and got diagnosed with bipolar and other associated things.’
After Ernst had given his account, the lawyer told him they’d decided that rather than involving him in the class action, they intended to bring an individual civil claim against Hacksbury on his behalf.
‘I went there with the sole aim of being able to tell my story, and do something to help these other kids. You know what they did? Hacksbury paid me $485,000 to go away, and I said to [the lawyer], “I don’t want his money”.’
The experience put Ernst ‘in a very dark place’ and he felt ‘just like the wheels fell off the car’.
As repressed feelings and images were triggered, he threatened violence against Hacksbury and was charged by police. He behaved erratically, buying significant assets and then having no memory of having sold or given them away. His marriage of many years broke down and he was hospitalised three times after attempting to take his own life. He felt the various medications he was prescribed contributed to his ill-health.
At some point Ernst ‘decided no more medication’, and stopped them completely.
He’s been in a relationship for about 20 years now, he said, and life is better though he had no intention of seeking any kind of counselling. ‘I’ve got a real phobia about psychiatrists and psychologists now because every time I went to one, I’d finish up a bloody zombie on medication and all that sort of stuff. And that’s not the answer.’
As an adult Ernst found out that several of his siblings had also been sexually abused while in children’s homes, and this and their subsequent mental health problems, gave him ‘a lot of grief’.
He doubted that anything could be done about the people who sexually abused him and his siblings.
‘I know that they’re not going to be held accountable themselves, because most of them will be dead by the time everything’s, everything’s done, but if it has the effect of not letting it happen again, that’s what it’s about, for me anyway.’