Heath was the youngest of many siblings. In the mid-1960s, when his father ‘took to the bottle’, Heath’s mother found it difficult to look after all her children. The Presbyterian Church suggested that the younger siblings be placed in care. Heath, who was six years old at the time, was placed into a Presbyterian-run orphanage in Sydney where there were about 50 other children. Heath was one of the youngest children in the home.
He found the environment confronting and he cried for weeks, finding little sympathy or support from the house parents or teachers. The house parents lived on the premises but not in the dormitories where the children slept. The school was on the grounds of the home and Heath’s daily routine was ‘chores and then march to school, march back home and do more chores’.
At the orphanage, he was sexually abused by the housemaster.
‘All the younger boys got washed by the housemaster … the thing that really stuck in my mind, is when he rolled back my foreskin it hurt like buggery … All the younger boys used to get washed by him on a regular basis … That went on for the whole of my time.’
He was also targeted by an older boy in the home. ‘The standover kid used to come around in the dormitory whenever he wanted and just put his dick in your mouth and that was it. You’d be too scared to say anything about him because he’d just bash you up.’
Heath was so young when the abuse began that it became normalised to him. ‘The bloke … he’d wash me – I just thought it was just routine. Just what happened. And the older boy who abused me – thought [that] was just routine too … To me, I didn’t know what was right, what was wrong. I couldn’t speak to anybody. The school was absolutely atrocious [too].’
After leaving the orphanage Heath wound up getting in trouble with the police and bounced around juvenile detention centres before landing in jail.
‘I was on the streets … doing drugs and alcohol and what have you. I left the institutions not being able to read and write and having some very serious … not very desirable sexual habits.’
When he was about 18 years old, he was given parole and took the opportunity to turn his life around. He attended adult education classes and gained trade qualifications at TAFE. He met and married a ‘wonderful woman’ and had children. ‘I forgot all the past. I put that all behind me.’
About 15 years ago, his marriage broke down ‘through alcohol and pressures at the time’ and ‘after we broke up … it started to come back and haunt me again’.
‘I had purpose. I was loved. I worked seven days a week … but when that failed it was completely different. That’s when my life took another chapter … I started to drink a bit more too … At one stage I had some very undesirable thoughts because I was in alcohol, LSD and mushrooms … and you think some really bad thoughts … I probably should’ve seen a counsellor.’
Heath slid for some years but then decided that his relationship with his children was more important than anything else in his life.
‘The beauty of it is I don’t smoke or drink or take any drugs anymore and haven’t done for 10 years. I got to a stage in my life where I … was only seeing my children every second weekend … and said, “Look something’s got to give”, and I got DUI about three times … Gave up everything just to try the alternative … It’s pretty good.’
The orphanage has apologised in writing for the treatment and abuse Heath received in the home but has offered little in the way of compensation. Their letter to him triggered memories of the abuse.
‘I got the letter – a signed sealed confession from the institution saying … these things did take part and “We’re sorry”. That opened up another can of worms and … and I went and seen a solicitor.’
Heath is continuing to seek redress from the institution (now the Uniting Church). He believes that the problems he has forming relationships with women and his ongoing intimacy issues stem from the sexual abuse he experienced in the home.
‘I’m a bit of a loner … I spent a small fortune on prostitutes and massage parlours … That’s when I’ve looked back and said … “Why have I got these sexual desires?” … and I believe it’s all because I was mucked up in the very early stages [of my life].’
Heath is glad he has been able to provide stability for his children and that he has been involved in their lives.
‘I did pretty well … The reason why I’m still here for my children is because I want them to know who their father was. My father wasn’t in my life [at all].’