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Ken James's story

Ken’s parents migrated from Europe and settled in a country town in Victoria in the late 1940s. It was not a happy marriage and Ken saw a lot of heavy drinking and domestic violence at home.

His dad started beating him black and blue and so, from the age of eight, Ken took to running away and committing petty crimes. Two years later he and a friend made their way to Melbourne with some stolen cash. A man offered them a lift in his car. ‘I can still see the bloke’s face.’ When he took his penis out and wanted the two boys to touch it, Ken and his mate made their escape.

The next day the police caught them shoplifting. Ken told them not just about his petty thieving, but also about the man who’d exposed himself to them. Ken was made a ward of the state and put into a boys’ home, to stop him ‘lapsing into a life of vice and crime’.

Ken remembers the exact date in 1960, not long after he’d been put in care, that he and three other boys were sexually abused by the night officer. The officer took the boys out into a van late one night and masturbated them. One of the boys then had to masturbate him. They were too scared to report him and Ken doesn’t know the perpetrator’s name.

But word somehow got out and two weeks later Mr Carey, the home’s superintendent, got the boys to make a statement as part of an enquiry. Ken realised later that the superintendent was also a paedophile.

Ken has a copy of what Carey wrote: ‘I believe the boys would relish the notoriety they would gain from a court experience.’ Ken is outraged. ‘We were 10 years old, scared.’ The report also says there was ‘no impact’ on the boys from the abuse because they talked about it freely.

Carey’s report also referred to a police report – written after Ken was picked up shoplifting – that talked about the man who exposed himself to the two boys. ‘While in the car all three participated in acts of a homosexual nature.’

Ken is mystified as to how the police reached that conclusion. But Carey used it to blame Ken for the night officer’s sexual abuse. ‘The authorities are saying that I’m responsible for what happened.’

So the police were not notified, the abuser was dismissed without penalty and he kept abusing boys in the home.

Ken spent the next seven years in and out of government-run boys’ homes and juvenile centres.

‘It ruined my life … The physical abuse, the mental abuse, made you hate everything. You didn’t trust anybody, nobody. I still don’t trust people.’

He still remembers how Carey ‘dragged me out of the shower, naked, took me to the dining room in front of all the other kids and belted the shit out of me with a bannister brush’. Other officers beat the boys with a stick.

Ken became a serial absconder. A major at one Salvation Army home realised he was ‘a runner’ and made him walk around in bare feet. Then one Sunday, after Ken asked for some shoes to wear to church, ‘I was off’. He never went back.

Ken’s spent a lot of his adult years angry. ‘I was hard work, and I realise that.’ He took drugs and drank heavily. He couldn’t be affectionate and eventually his marriage broke up. For a long time he wasn’t in contact with his kids. ‘I could get very violent when I was drunk, because all the hate would come up.’

He realised that he needed to change. In his late 30s he went to Alcoholics Anonymous and did some emotional repair work, seeing ‘a lot of shrinks along the way’ and doing a lot of talking. He reconciled with his dad and nursed him until he died. ‘It was my way of saying I wasn’t that bad after all.’

Ken now sees his children. In fact his kids and grandkids have given him a reason to stick around. ‘If I didn’t have the kids I wouldn’t be here.’

Apart from anything else he was determined to have a better life. ‘Part of the mentality was, I’ll show you bastards anyway that I can be a success in life.’

Ken admitted he was a boy with a lot of problems. His home town didn’t even want him back when he was released in his mid-teens. But troubled kids get more support now, he thinks. ‘We didn’t get any support. We were just thrown into the system and you had to fend for yourself.’

Ken first disclosed the sexual abuse to a support service this year, decades after it happened. They helped him get Carey’s written enquiry.

He hasn’t made up his mind about seeking compensation. Despite all the work he’s done, the impact of physical and sexual abuse lives on. ‘I could be sittin’ there and I nearly burst into tears. There’s no explanation.’

Ken remembers kids warning each other about staff members in the different homes.

‘It was all survival. Everything you did was just for you to survive. And you stay in that mode when you get released … You’ve got to change your whole way of thinking.’

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