‘The three things they taught us were fear of God, fear of them and work your arse off. Now I don’t fear God, I don’t fear them, but I still work my arse off.’
Ned arrived in Australia at the age of seven and was immediately sent to a Christian Brothers boys’ home in Western Australia. For 10 years he had next to no schooling and like other boys he worked the farm and did hard physical labour. Winter and summer, boys went barefoot and wearing only shirts and shorts, mixed and poured cement, laid roof tiles and carted bricks for miles to build and extend the Brothers’ premises.
It was a place of brutality, Ned said, and there was no defence against the Brothers’ violence and abuse. No external visitors ever spoke to the boys and in later years, when Ned tried to tell people just some of the things the Brothers did, he wasn’t believed.
‘You’d tell different people and they’d say, “No, it didn’t happen”; “The Brothers wouldn’t do that.” And there’s still a few that think they’re all good people.’
Ned told the Commissioner that during his years at the home he was beaten, strapped, kicked and punched by at least five different Brothers. As well as fists and boots, they used leather straps reinforced with pennies, a sewing machine belt, a fence picket and a pick-axe. During one period when Ned lay in bed with his eyes bandaged because of conjunctivitis, he was accused by one of the Brothers of moving the bandage. ‘He hit me repeatedly across the side of my head, leaving me in a lot of pain with very sore eyes, and a crushing sense of fear and loneliness.’
Just as bad he said, was the emotional abuse. Ned was told that his mother was dead and nobody wanted or loved him. When he later reunited with his mother, she recounted that she’d been told Ned had been adopted. ‘It was cruel lies and deception.’
Ned said sexual abuse by the Brothers and visiting priests was known by boys but rarely talked about. ‘I feel more fortunate than some of the boys who were repeatedly raped, but I didn’t escape. You could hear kids up in the tower. The priest lived in the tower.’
Over a period of years, Father de Santo repeatedly tried to fondle Ned’s genitals during confession. ‘He was a slimy, fat, old toad who was always trying to feel me up, nestling up close and putting his hands all over me, trying to get them down my shorts.’ Ned avoided confession when he could, but his absence was reported by de Santo to the Brothers who’d then turn the strap on him.
‘Looking back now, I spent years of being afraid of what [de Santo] would do to me and I knew nobody would protect me. It was part of the trauma that had a terrible effect on me in later life, making me watchful and wary of anybody and spending more time alone and lonely because people were just not safe to relax around.’
Ned said that after leaving school he lived ‘like a nomad’, and worked in construction, security and transport. He joined the armed services because he thought ‘it couldn’t be worse than what we went through’ in the boys’ home. The services gave him stability and an education, and his experience wasn’t all bad, ‘because when you were being attacked, at least you could fight back’.
In the mid-1980s, Ned formed his first intimate relationship and married. Before meeting Denise, he’d always had a strong sense of shame and inadequacy. ‘I now realise this has robbed me of the chance to become a parent and have a family of my own.’
He still has flashbacks and is always alert to impending danger. ‘It’s not as bad now as it was, but you know, I’m 74 and I’ve still got memories of that place.’
In the mid-1990s, Ned took part in civil proceedings against the Christian Brothers, but it brought little satisfaction. The matter was settled for $5 million and $3 million went in legal fees. ‘Not much to split up between a few thousand children.’
He said he’d often wondered what his life would have been like if he hadn’t come to Australia. ‘I always believed it was my own fault I came, because I put up my hand when they asked who wanted to go to Australia. It took me a long time to realise that that was not a proper question to ask a seven-year-old.’