‘I’ve been fearful of going to the police because they’re the ones who took me out there.’
In the late 1970s, Ernst was picked up after breaking windows in abandoned houses. To show what would happen if he ‘went too far off the rails’, the police organised for him to spend weekends at a boys’ home run by the De La Salle Brothers. Officers told Ernst’s mother that he was going to a farm, a place from which ‘boys always came back as much better people’.
When she found out later that Ernst had been severely sexually abused over his three weekends in the home, his mother felt terrible guilt. She’d been working three jobs to support her children after separating from her husband, and had no idea what the Brothers were doing.
At 10 and the youngest boy in the home, Ernst was called ‘my trophy’ by one of the Brothers who abused him. He was strip searched on arrival and up to twice per day while he was there. ‘The first time I was there I had to lay down beside one of the Brothers and he fondled my genitalia’, Ernst said. ‘I was frozen with fear. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything, I was just frozen. I was poked with a walking stick in the rectum regularly … The penetration part I can’t talk about.’
Ernst said that physical abuse was rife in the home. Brothers routinely used the strap as well as an electric cattle prod to discipline boys and would put them in a cell naked and without food and water. Ernst tried three times to escape from the home but was brought back each time to even worse punishment.
As a result of the sexual abuse, he described having lifelong rectal and bowel problems. In order to treat him, doctors required that he undergo a colonoscopy, but he couldn’t comply with their requests because ‘no one’s touching me there’.
The first person Ernst told about the abuse was his elder brother when he was in his early teens. His brother felt bad that he wasn’t there to protect him. Ernst subsequently told another brother as well as his mother who still feels responsible. His father, now deceased, wasn’t told because he ‘probably would have done something terrible’.
One day Ernst rang the boys’ home from a payphone. ‘I didn’t tell them who I was’, he said. ‘I just said that I was hurt there. This is years later – I was probably 16 or 17. They said that any sexual allegations are referred to the police and, “You need to ring the police”. That’s all they said. No support – they didn’t give me their name.’
For decades Ernst didn’t do anything further. ‘I just blocked it out’, he said. ‘I knew I’d been hurt there.’ He couldn’t keep a job because of his physical health problems and at one stage was over-using prescription pain relievers. He’d had thoughts of suicide from time to time and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also had obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifested in a desire to feel clean.
‘It’s the guilt. I felt guilt and disgusting. I’m a chronic hand washer, you know, I think it’s probably ‘cause I felt dirty all my life. I shower two or three times a day and my partner says to me, “Why do you have to shower all the time?” I do that because – I don’t know why, because I felt dirty I guess.’
Ernst said he’s also had difficulty with intimacy in the past, and feelings of stress were putting significant strain on his current relationship.
He’s recently contacted a law firm about possibly making a civil claim, although he’s reluctant to make a statement to Queensland Police because they’d sent him to the boys’ home in the first place. He’s recently been given the name of a specialist taskforce within the police service and thinks that, with support, he might be able to approach them.
As memories of the abuse continue to surface, Ernst is in touch with a counsellor and hopes that he and his partner will be able to work through their difficulties.
‘I’d love to have kids’, he said. ‘It’s always been my dream, you know, but I didn’t want to bring kids into this world that could possibly suffer, but now that this is coming out I feel that I’d be very protective of my children.’