‘I can’t remember anyone ever coming to the orphanage that come and asked us how we were going or anything. It was him that ran it and he ran it his way and that’s how it worked. There was no one else to talk to ... If you told anyone you’d get another beating so you just kept your mouth shut.’
Joe has little memory of life before the orphanage, and he’s never understood why he was sent there. What he knows is that the place was run by the Anglican Church and he arrived there in the early 1960s when he was five years old.
The first eight years of Joe’s stay were characterised by ‘shocking’ mental and physical abuse, usually at the hands of the home’s manager, an Anglican priest named Warren Howlett. During this time Joe also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of older boys and one of the staff members.
Things changed dramatically for the better when Joe was about 14 and a new manager arrived to run the home. The new manager and his wife were good people who cared for the boys and helped the older ones make the difficult transition into the outside world. When Joe left the home at 16 they helped him reconnect with his father, who then took him out west to do farming work.
Joe was thrilled to be free of the orphanage. He put it all behind him. ‘I just kept going. Kept going, didn’t look back over my shoulder for 40 years.’ He spent many of those 40 years working by himself in remote areas, avoiding other people. Isolation, he said, has been the biggest impact of the abuse. It affected his marriage, which ended in divorce.
‘I would never talk’, Joe said. Instead he would close in on himself. ‘Always do, still.’ Laughing, he said that his partner, Jennifer, thinks he’s rude. ‘People come to the house and I just get up and walk off. Just head off. Go out to the shed. Go to my room. The minute I feel uncomfortable I just go.’
As Joe got older the memories of the abuse started coming back to him more often. He decided to open up about them a little. First he reached out via Facebook to some other survivors of the same orphanage. They recommended that he get some counselling, which Joe did. He’s found it helpful.
He still wasn’t able to discuss the abuse with Jennifer but he invited her to attend the Royal Commission session with him so that she could hear what he said when he told his story to the Commissioner.
Now Joe plans to continue his counselling and his conversations with other survivors. Through these conversations he’s come to learn that many people have suffered far worse than he has. Joe believes that he’s been able to handle things better than others because of the support he received after he left the orphanage.
‘I lived with some families out there that were nice people too that probably helped me out a fair bit, not that they knew what happened but they were still nice to me … Just hanging round the right people, I think. Probably being out west too. Couldn’t get myself into too much trouble.’