‘We were sent out here as slaves for the Christian Brothers’, Felix told the Commissioner. He was recalling his experiences as a child migrant.
Felix came to Perth from the UK when he was five in the late 1940s. On arrival he was sent to a Christian Brothers home. His first vivid memory of his new life in Australia was the sorting sheds, where children were divided into groups to be sent to different institutions. Children screamed as they were separated from siblings and friends. ‘It was horrific’, Felix said.
Another vivid memory is of the welcome he and the other boys received at the home. As they got off the bus they were made to strip and walk in a naked procession past the Christian Brothers who beat them as they went by. ‘“We don’t like Poms”, they said’, Felix recalled.
The life that unfolded at that institution and then a second Christian Brothers home for older boys was one of unrelenting brutality and deprivation. The boys suffered abuse of every kind. Night times were the worst.
‘You’d see this bloke walking around with a torch. He’d go to a bed. He’d take someone out of the bed and take ‘em to his room. I used to get under the sheets and the blankets and pray it wasn’t me. But I finally got taken one night. I was seven years old.’
Boys didn’t talk about the sexual abuse, Felix said. But when he was 13 or 14 and living at the home for older boys, he reported it to Brother O’Brien. ‘He called me a fucking liar. He kicked the living shit out of me and when I was on the ground he kicked me in the balls.’
Felix’s testicles were ruptured in this incident and he became infertile as a result, as he found when he married later on.
Violence was commonplace at the home, but O’Brien was especially brutal. ‘When I say beatings, I mean beatings. He was a vicious, vicious brute. He’d flog you till you’re just about dead. Then if he felt like it he’d give you a kick in the guts and say “Get up”. They weren’t bloody Christians, they were just sadistic bastards. It’s wrong to say that, but that’s the way I feel.’
Infertility was just one consequence of the abuse Felix suffered in the care of the Christian Brothers. All affect him still but one he feels especially bitter about is his lack of education. He needed glasses but wasn’t given them till shortly before he left the home. Seated up the back of the classroom, he couldn’t read the blackboard and was flogged for making mistakes.
‘I couldn’t read and write or anything when I left there’, he said.
‘You can’t read, you can’t write. The only job I could get was at the stables ... It stuffed my whole life up.’
Felix left the home at 16. His early attempts to tell people about his experiences there were met with disbelief. He stopped talking about it. He joined the army, hoping he would die.
‘I’ve had a few goes at trying to kill myself, suicide. I was hoping to go to Vietnam so I could get killed, shot so I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. I know it’s not really nice. I’ve had a few goes at suicide but apparently it wasn’t my time to go’, he told the Commissioner.
It wasn’t until his 50s that Felix shared his story with the Child Migrant Trust. With the trust’s support he was able to locate his mother and other family members in the UK. He sees a psychiatrist now and finds that helpful. Though he was not able to develop a satisfying relationship with his mother he has become close to his sister, and has taught himself how to use Skype and email so he can stay in touch with her. He believes financial support to allow child migrants to visit family overseas should be part of any future redress scheme.
Felix was a complainant in a case taken against the Christian Brothers in the mid 1990s and received $25,000. He later received an ex gratia payment from Redress WA. He has never had any offer of support from the Christian Brothers or an apology.
It’s too late for apologies anyway, he said.
‘Most of them blokes are all dead now. Hopefully they’re down in hell, where they belong.’