Ken’s early life was difficult. His father was ‘a drunk’ and abusive, and Ken had to steal food to make sure his siblings ate. In the late 1950s, when he was about six, Ken and his siblings were taken into care. He and his younger brothers were sent to an orphanage run by an order of Catholic nuns in regional Victoria.
Ken found the culture of the home strict with harsh punishments meted out daily. ‘In the classrooms, if somebody couldn’t do something they’d put a dunce hat on them, and sit them in a corner and humiliate you that way. If you dropped your food off the table … they’d make you pick it up and eat it.’
The children were given hard physical tasks including polishing floors by hand – an exhausting task for such young children.
Ken also experienced regular and degrading sexual abuse. ‘The nuns would stand there and watch you have showers. Sister would have her stick and she’d go, “What’s that dirty thing? Have you washed it?” … she’d lift your penis up and if you cracked a stiff, they’d hit it.’
When Ken was older, he was sent to another boys’ home run by the Christian Brothers. Here the physical, sexual and emotional abuse continued. Punishments included being locked in a cell, in cupboards and in classrooms, and they often incorporated some form of public humiliation and ‘full force’ beatings.
The Brothers also encouraged significant fighting among the boys, and deprived Ken of treats, and of the pocket money he earned through labouring.
One Brother ‘used to get people to sit on his lap and that … took me into his room and sat me on his lap – and he hit you too – he ran his hands down my thigh … I don’t go into it’.
When Ken was moved from a dormitory to cottage-style accommodation, the cottage father sexually abused him.
‘We could shower on our own but he would stand there and he’d say, “You’ve got to pull your foreskin back and wash your penis”. And he’d come in and pull it back. Which we didn’t like … He’d go and have a shower, be naked, get me to come in, sit on him and do his back he’d also say, “You can touch [my] penis” … he always shut the doors and all that.’
Before Ken reached his teens, the Brothers forced Ken to be circumcised. ‘Even when I was in the army, when I was getting out I was still getting stitches out of me penis – that was after 20 years in the army.’
Ken could not tell anyone at the homes that he was being abused. As an ‘orphanage’ child, who was isolated by other students and brutalised by teachers, he was likewise unable to disclose to anyone at his school. Going to the police was also not an option.
‘You can’t tell anybody because you can’t trust the cops, you can’t trust anybody with authority … Another reason you couldn’t say anything to the cops because they used to take us Aboriginal children.’
When Ken received his welfare records, he was stunned to realise that there was no information about his health or his schooling. Even the circumcision hadn’t been noted. ‘You get nothing … so you’ve got no records of any of this.’
Ken never spoke about his abuse until he engaged with the Royal Commission.
‘I start talking about stuff and when it gets too hard, I’ll just say, “Right, I’ll go into my shell”, and that’s what I done with this … I don’t talk to anybody about it … I don’t really want to go into it because I put it away and that’s where it’s got to stay.’
Despite his distrust of authority, Ken joined the army in his late teens. He said ‘I looked at it like I’m getting fed, I’m getting paid, and I was outside’. In the army, he quickly became dependent on alcohol which he had been drinking from a young age. ‘In the army I drank … I drank a helluva lot in the army.’
Ken married and had children, but was often absent. When he was at home, he was a strict disciplinarian. The marriage broke down not long after he left the army, and his relationships with his siblings have been difficult.
‘There’s no closeness. I don’t know what you’re supposed to have as closeness to a family. They took my culture off of me … I reckon I’m still shutdown with me brothers.’
Ken and his siblings successfully sought compensation from the Catholic Church, but the settlements were paltry. Ken had most wanted to hold them accountable and to receive acknowledgement of the damage done. He asked for an apology but no apology was given. Ken is now pursuing further compensation with the assistance of the legal advice organisation knowmore.
Due to his deteriorating health, Ken has reduced his drinking. However, he still uses it to block out recurring flashbacks of his abuse. ‘When you dream that stuff – that’s why I drink the alcohol … just to get rid of the memories.’
Ken helps to look after his grandchildren, and is reconnecting with his Aboriginal relatives and community.