‘My mother tried to put me inside the boys’ home … she was afraid my father was going to harm me. So that’s why I started running away from home then. And of course I was classified as a truant by the welfare department and it went from there then. I was a ward of the state.’
Fitz was seven when he became a ward of the state. It was the 1950s in Victoria and, as he found out later, his mother had schizophrenia with symptoms of paranoia. The Christian Brothers orphanage she took him to said they were unable to accept him. This was the beginning of an unsettled time when Fitz moved between orphanages run by the Christian Brothers and the Franciscans, government-run boys’ homes, sometimes back at home, and occasionally his grandmother’s house.
As he’s got older, Fitz has been able to put a wry spin on his early life, saying he’d been dealt a rough hand: ‘I think the deck might have been stacked somehow, whoever dealt it they’ve got different cards.’
But the wounds created at that time are yet to heal. He told the Commissioner about brutal punishment at the hands of the Christian Brothers that he still remembers vividly. And just a year before his private session, he had a flashback while he was in hospital.
‘I was just dozing off and all of a sudden I got this smell, this odour and … I was back in this Christian Brother’s room … I can remember I just stood by the bed and the door opened and a Brother was coming towards me with his black cassock. He turned around, locked the door, I thought “What’s going on? What would he lock the door for?”
‘He come over and he hugged me and that was the smell, it was his BO. He went over to the sink and got a glass of water. He didn’t turn around straight away so I felt that he put something in it. He come back to me, told me to drink it, then he bent down to the floor and started taking my shoes and socks off and that’s all I can remember … I’ve had nightmares trying to look at his face, and that’s when I wake up. So it’s a shocking feeling.’
Other memories are clearer. Fitz said he was sexually abused a number of times by older boys in the homes. The first time it happened, he was about nine and the boy who abused him threatened to kill him if he told anyone. Then a few years later, an older boy called Edward started to sexually abuse him. Fitz didn’t tell anybody and Edward continued abusing him two or three times a week until Fitz left that home.
‘I never complained about the abuse that I experienced at the hands of Edward. The first boy who abused me in the home had threatened that he’d kill me if I said anything and although Edward never threatened me I assumed that he’d do the same so I didn’t say anything. I also believe Edward was abusing other boys in the home.’
Fitz often ran away, but was always brought back and given the strap – ‘six of the best’. He didn’t tell anyone what was happening.
‘I wouldn’t have been believed … What hurt me was not one person from the welfare department come to question me to ask me why was I running away. So I never know if I would have told them or not. I never got a chance.’
He does believe the Brothers knew what was going on. Once one of them arrived late for class, saying ‘Sorry I’m late but I caught a couple of the boys in the toilets playing handies’.
‘He gave us a lecture on people who do such things are children of the devil. I must have been about 12 then. That’s when I started trying to work out my sexuality. And I thought “Why should I be a child of the devil? I don’t like the devil, I prefer Jesus. So why am I going that way?” I was all confused.’
By the time he was in his mid-teens, Fitz had worked out he was gay. As he moved through other homes there was continued sexual activity, but Fitz said although he didn’t feel threatened into participating, at 16 he was still too young to consent.
As an adult Fitz engaged in promiscuous behaviour, including sex work, and said there was a time when he didn’t care what happened to him as his self-esteem was so low. He has had depression and flashbacks, and is very careful about who he trusts, including counsellors. However, he has recently found a counsellor he clicks with.
In the mid-2000s, Fitz went to a support organisation that had called for people in institutions to come forward. When he heard other people’s stories of sexual abuse, Fitz realised he wasn’t alone and he disclosed for the first time. He made a report to the police about Edward, who denied abusing Fitz and no charges were laid.
The support group also helped Fitz approach the Church for redress and he received a modest payment, half of which went on legal fees. He did get a written apology which he found very positive, but his lawyers advised him there would be no point in taking any further legal action against the Church because they would likely use his sexuality in their defence.
Although he struggles financially, Fitz has found resilience through his love of singing. He has also done research to find members of his family and his reconnection with them brings both sides great joy. He said when he told them about his past, they were ‘dumbfounded’. He’s now writing his experiences down so they can read his whole life story.