Ferris was a child migrant, sent from an orphanage in Northern Ireland to Australia in the early 1950s.
‘I can still remember the screams when we got to Melbourne’, he told the Commissioner. They were coming from terrified, bereft children who’d been separated from siblings and friends as they got put on buses and dispatched to their new homes.
Ferris was eight years old when he arrived at his new home, a Presbyterian home for boys in regional Victoria. He didn’t leave for good until he turned 20.
Ferris was sexually molested over and over again during the time he was in the care of the home. His abusers included the supervisor of the home, staff members and members of the managing committee when they came to the home for monthly meetings. As he grew older he was sent to work as a farmhand and labourer on nearby properties, and was abused there as well.
‘Many of the farmers would want oral sex in the cow yards – if not, a belting’, he recalled.
One incident he described in detail began at school. His teacher there often took him into a small office and molested him, fondling his bottom and fingering his anus. One day Ferris became overwhelmed with anxiety about what was happening. In his efforts to get away from the teacher, he broke some of the things in the room. In a fury, the teacher began beating him. Ferris fled the school and began the long walk back to the home. The school bus passed him, and not long afterwards a big black car came by. It was driven by a minister from a nearby church.
‘He said “Get in the car”. So I got in the car. We drove down a lane’, Ferris said. The minister stopped the car and raped Ferris. And then he drove off, telling Ferris to stay there.
Ferris waited till it was dark, then walked back to the home. He went to see the superintendent. ‘I said my bottom was hurting. I was bleeding. He told me to go and have a shower.’ He tried to show the superintendent his injuries. ‘I got a belting for that, and was sent to bed.’
When Ferris first left the home he became a prostitute. But he managed to turn his life around. He’d had no education as a child. He didn’t attend school in Ireland. In Australia, he went to school but was placed in Year 4, despite the fact he couldn’t read or write. Though not identified at the time, he also suffered severe dyslexia. He was labelled a 'retard' and wasn’t allowed to continue his schooling. Instead, he was used as slave labour at the home, working in the kitchen and laundry.
Eventually Ferris taught himself to read and write and became a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He also created literacy resources that were the first of their kind, now used in classrooms around Australia. It’s a source of great satisfaction that’s he proved wrong those who judged him to be backward.
His personal life has remained troubled, however. When he spoke to the Commissioner he had recently separated from his wife of 48 years. He shared a message he’d received from her.
‘All I wanted was to be treated like a woman who was loved and cherished. You never kissed me, never caressed me’, she wrote.
That’s true, Ferris said. But it’s not surprising. When he met his wife he’d never kissed a girl. He didn’t know how to arouse a woman. As for foreplay - ‘What the fuck is foreplay? How would I know?’
Ferris sought compensation from the Presbyterian Church, now largely merged into the Uniting Church. ‘It is their fault that I finished up on the street and living out of bins …They did that. And they’ve got to be held responsible for that’, he said.
But he has found the Church obstructive every step of the way. He has never had an apology or been offered support or counselling. He was told his file would only be released if he signed a waiver regarding any future action. He didn’t sign. The Church refused to discuss his complaint with him. It attempted to have the complaint dismissed on the grounds it is not a legal entity. Eventually Ferris received a $50,000 payment, of which $20,000 went on his legal fees.
People often don’t understand, Ferris said, that the damage caused by abuse isn’t confined to one person. It affects partners, children and grandchildren.
Ferris has one grandchild, who he adores. It took a long time to feel confident enough to hold him and he’s still careful about how he touches him, and where. The child is an ongoing reminder of what happened to Ferris at the same age. ‘I look at him every day and think, “How could you do that? How could you do that to him?”’