‘My life was stolen from me. As far as I’m concerned, it was taken away from me. All I ever did was stole a pushbike when I was eight years old … and rode it about 250 metres down the road, and it was too big for me so I just got off it and walked away. And for that I spent 40 years in prison.’
After stealing the pushbike, Keith was put into care. He spent the rest of his childhood – from the mid-1950s into the late 1960s – shifting around Queensland, from one boys’ home to the next. He spent time in homes run by the Salvation Army, the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church (now the Uniting Church).
In all of these homes Keith was physically and sexually abused. He described one incident that occurred at an Anglican boys’ home when a priest overheard him making jokes.
‘He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, dragged me into the chapel and dressed me down and said – it ended up, anyway, that I was naked. He put his penis between my legs and ejaculated all over my body. And then he called me a “child of the devil” and pushed me off. And I hit my head on something or other and cut just below my eyes here. And I turned around and said to him “If I’m a child of a devil, I’m going to be the best bloody servant you ever saw”.’
To Keith, rebellion seemed like the only option. From the age of 10 he’d tried to report his abusers to staff and to police but no one ever listened. So he chose another path. ‘I just tried to cope the best I could. And that was not real good, believe me.’
By the time he hit his 20s Keith was addicted to drugs and alcohol and working as a prostitute. He couldn’t maintain a relationship, couldn’t hold down a regular job, ‘couldn’t do anything that a normal person would do’.
Constantly fearful of others, he used violence to protect himself. It was a strategy that quickly slipped from his control. Drugs and alcohol inflamed his temper and he often flew into uncontrollable rages. Keith recounted one incident where he took a kitchen knife and chased his wife and her friend up the street, planning to kill them. Fortunately, they escaped.
Violence landed Keith in jail and he ended up spending much of his life there. He became so used to it that it felt like home.
‘Everyone that I’d gotten close to, they were in jail. They were like my family. They were like my brothers. I’d become so institutionalised that I just could not survive outside of a highly disciplined environment.’
In recent years Keith has managed to stay out of trouble and get his life back on track. He credits this turnaround to his supportive wife and their shared Christian faith. His counsellor has also been helpful. In particular, she gave him guidance and support in the early 2010s when he decided to seek redress from the Queensland state and the various Churches who ran the homes where he was abused.
Keith’s experiences of the redress process were mixed. He got a payment from the Queensland Government, but what he really appreciated was their apology. ‘You’ve got no idea what it meant. For the first time in 40 years someone believed us.’
He also got a payment from the Salvation Army and was impressed with their ‘upfront’ manner and the way they took responsibility for the abuse straight away. He got a payment from the Anglicans too, and described them as ‘the fairest mob of the whole lot’.
The smallest payment – $15,000 – came from the Uniting Church. That was insulting in itself, but it was the way the representative spoke to him that really made Keith angry.
‘I got some idiot sitting down there explaining to me that because my abuse was at the “lower end of the scale” – now what the hell does that mean? You know, like, “I’ve only been a little bit abused”? How can you be “a little bit abused”? … How can you quantify abuse?’
Overall, Keith believes the Uniting Church were only really interested in ‘getting out of it as cheaply as possible’. And while he appreciated the kind and responsible way that the state and the other Churches treated him, he believes that they’re all guilty of the same crime – not only in respect to his claim, but in regard to other survivors as well.
‘What we’ve been paid so far, as far as I’m concerned, is a pittance. They say to me all the time “Money will make no difference”. And I say to you: yes it will. Because my life was stolen from me … All I ever wanted was to be a normal Joe. To get a job, to get married, to have kids, to have a mortgage, and all the rest of the things that any other supposedly normal member of society does. But I didn’t have the chance to do that. And I want adequate compensation so that I can sit back and leave my grandchildren a legacy.’