Niall wasn’t going to share his story with the Royal Commission at first. But he changed his mind. ‘I’m not thinking about myself’, he said. ‘I’m thinking about the kids who’re coming after me. And that is the only reason I’m here.’
He also had in mind the friends who had been with him at the Christian Brothers home in Western Australia where he lived for nearly six years. Some have died – including one who died at the home, after a labouring accident. Others were not fit enough to speak to the Commission, whether physically or psychologically.
‘I owe it to them to come here and speak’, Niall told the Commissioner.
Niall arrived at the home as an 11-year-old in the early 1950s. He had come from an orphanage in Northern Ireland, along with several others. He described himself as ‘a good Catholic boy’. In Ireland he’d been an altar boy and he’d been promised he could be an altar boy in Australia too.
Sure enough, the opportunity came along and Niall took it. But being an altar boy under the supervision of Brother Maxwell was not the experience he expected.
‘He’d say “Here, have some bread”’, Niall remembered. ‘“Have a little drink of wine”. But it went further than that. After a couple of weeks, a couple of months, he put his hand down the front of my pants, and said “You’re getting to be a big boy”. And I shivered. I knew it was wrong.’
Some weeks later Niall reported Brother Maxwell’s molestation to another Brother. The Brother said he was a liar. ‘You Irish kids are nothing but trouble’, he told Niall.
The abuse by Brother Maxwell was just part of the terrible physical, psychological and sexual abuse Niall and other boys suffered at the home.
For the first 10 months of his stay there, he and the other Irish boys were singled out for extra punishment. Each evening after prayers they were made to stand on a table in front of all the other boys. It was an exercise in cruelty supervised by the school principal, Brother Frederick.
‘He’d sit in his rocking chair and accuse us of what we’d done, and hadn’t done – and then we got a hiding, every night, from Monday to Friday.’
Brother Frederick was also a sexual abuser, one of many at the home. They would come round at night and choose a boy to take back to their rooms. But the abuse could occur anywhere at any time. ‘I could give you a thousand stories of what happened to me’, Niall said.
He described being 13 or 14 years old, walking down the aisle of the church after communion. ‘There they all are with their rosary beads, and you think “Which mongrel wants me tonight, which one of them is going to come and get me tonight?”’
Niall said he lost his belief in God, in religion and himself. But he was never silenced. He was known as a troublemaker and a stirrer, he said. He argued and questioned, and was brutally punished as a result. He was made to work in the piggery, the dairy and the laundry. He was regularly beaten. There was one Brother in particular who ‘whipped the living bejesus’ out of him, and another who would literally froth at the mouth with rage as he belted him. ‘I saw the madness in his eyes.’
The violence was endemic. ‘They were getting their delight by beating the living hell out of us. We were children, we weren’t even half-grown.’
When Niall first left the home, then 16 years old, ‘I couldn’t think, I couldn’t mix or talk to people’, he said. He wasn’t able to hold down a job. He didn’t trust anyone. The repeated bashings he’d had left his hearing permanently damaged. He became an alcoholic, and spent time in jail as a result.
As a young man he made several suicide attempts and spent time in psychiatric institutions. Doctors there asked if he’d ever had shock treatment. He told them being in the Christian Brothers home was a shock – ‘from the first day I got there, till I left five and half years later’.
After 12 years of alcoholism, Niall gave up drinking in the mid-1960s. ‘I was sick of carrying the burden of the so-called Christian Brothers. I was sick of what they’d done to me. I’d been through the mill … I said “I think I can do better.”’
Despite the difficulties he’s faced, he describes himself as a lucky man. He has been happily married for over 40 years. He has shared his story with his wife, and with his children when they reached their 20s. Others he’d tried to tell over the years hadn’t believed him.
‘The Brothers were regarded as pillars of society’, he said. ‘People would say it couldn’t have happened.’
Niall has received some compensation but said money is not the point. ‘It doesn’t matter if they give you a million – it wouldn’t be enough.’ What matters, he told the Commissioner, is protecting children of the future.
‘I’ll be honest with you,’ he said, ‘you’re always going to have those predators and bullies’. He believes more effective deterrents are needed, in the form of stricter sentencing and non-parole periods.
Niall said he himself had lost his childhood because of his experiences. And he’d seen a lot of good people go down because of what happened to them at the home.
‘I’d go to bed at night, after being with the Brothers making us do terrible things to them … You’d think, “Is this real?” Then you’d cry, and think “I wish I had a mother”’, Niall recalled. ‘I’m not a man who holds hate or malice but I could never forgive the Catholic Church or the Christian brothers, because they weren’t Christians.’