Otto’s parents migrated to Australia and settled in Perth in the 1950s. When they separated Otto and his siblings remained with their mother. One day in the early 1960s the children came home from school to find their mother was ill. An ambulance came and took her to hospital. That evening a Salvation Army truck arrived to collect the children. ‘We didn’t know what was happening. We were basically just chucked in the back of a truck and taken away.’
The older children were taken to a Christian Brothers home. The youngest, just a baby, was taken to another institution, and adopted out soon afterwards.
‘That night … was the last night I saw my youngest brother.’
Otto was about eight when he arrived at the home. As a 10-year-old, he was transferred to a home for older boys, where he remained until he was 15.
Physical abuse was part of the culture there and sexual abuse was also widespread. Boys talked about it amongst themselves. But the regime of harsh discipline meant they didn’t report it to anyone. ‘People were too scared. If you opened your mouth you got a hiding.’
Otto was first sexually abused when he was 12. He was one of the boys Brother Williams took to his workshop and molested. And he was picked by Brother Humphrey, who prowled the dormitory at night and took boys back to his room.
Brother Olmert arrived at the institution when Otto was in Year 8. He was huge and fat, Otto recalled. He also roamed the dormitories at night, and for several years Otto was one of the boys he chose. ‘I was picked and taken down [to Brother Olmert’s room] and fed alcohol and forced to perform oral sex, basically.’
Otto ran away a few times, and was caught by police. When he tried to explain what was happening at the home, they didn’t believe him. ‘The cops just said “You’re a bloody liar”. Bang, back in the van, straight back to school.’
After he’d been picked up and returned a few times, ‘everything went bad’. Otto refused to attend class, his grades went down and he’d take off whenever he could. ‘I‘d end up sleeping anywhere but in my bed.’
Otto got frequent hidings from the Brothers. His hands were strapped so often that he suffered nerve damage and lost feeling in the tips of his fingers. Blows to the head, sometimes with a piece of wood, were frequent, and left Otto with permanent scars.
When he was 15 or 16, at the end of Year 10, he was expelled. ‘I was told one day that my time there had finished … I was given $2, put in the car, taken to the middle of Perth and dropped off.’
Otto had no family to turn to for help and no other support. He joined the army, and began a succession of jobs that didn’t last. ‘I’d just drift from job to job, town to town, state to state.’ He got into trouble and spent some time in jail. He had problems with anger – ‘I fly off the handle at the slightest things’ – and frequently got into conflict with employers. ‘To put it honestly, I was pretty feral.’
Otto only spoke about his abuse for the first time when he sought a payment through the Western Australian government redress scheme. He found the process very difficult. ‘There was a lot of things I didn’t tell them because I couldn’t.’ He still finds talking about his experiences difficult, and hasn’t spoken of them to any family or friends.
‘It’s hard to talk about. The problem is the more I talk about it the more I remember. And the more I remember the more details I remember … and the thing is I keep thinking about it. And the more I think about it the worse it gets.’
Otto eventually received a redress payment of $42,000 which he gave to his adult children. He has no plans to report his abuse to police, because he did, at the time, and they sent him back for more. And he won’t be seeking compensation from the Christian Brothers.
‘I’d rather not go anywhere near them if I can help it. There’s a lot of things wrong with me at the moment, which I’m willing to admit. But the worst thing of the whole lot is a pathological hatred of anything religious. When I got married I would not get married in a church. My children were not christened in the church because I wouldn’t go in the door. I can’t stand anybody who has anything to do with any religion … To me, religion is like the plague. Won’t touch it.’
It wasn’t until Otto’s father died in the mid-1990s that Otto found out what had happened to his mother. He came across her death certificate when he was sorting through his father’s papers. Other documents revealed that his father had been paying the Christian Brothers for Otto’s care and that of his siblings until the mid-1980s – many years after they’d left the institution. He doesn’t know what became of his youngest brother.
‘Nobody knows anything. Nobody will say anything. Salvation Army records are sealed from those days. You could probably go through a court, but who’s got the money for that?’
He believes the Catholic Church should be made to accept financial responsibility for the harm caused by the Christian Brothers. They made the problem, they should fix it, he believes.
‘Being practical, the only way to get through to some people is their pocket. Whether it’s as a person, or as a corporation or as an entity like the Church – hit ‘em in the wallet and they will pay attention.’
Otto and his wife are long separated, and he describes himself as antisocial. ‘I don’t talk to anyone. I don’t associate. I don’t go out. I go to work, I come home, I stay home.’ Lately he’s had work that takes him out on boats for long stretches of time and this suits him.
‘It’s safe out there. I can go out there and no one can touch me. I can see anybody coming. People don’t sneak up on you at night.’