Sergei was made a ward of the state when he was six in the late 1940s. He was sent to live in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns in regional Queensland north of Brisbane. He has no memory of his parents and he did not see them again. Sergei was trapped in the orphanage for a decade.
His sister also lived in the home. ‘We grew up not knowing each other’, Sergei told the Commissioner, ‘even though she was in the dormitory next door’.
The nuns were famously vicious. ‘They were very cruel people. They seemed to me to be taking out their frustrations on us, I think, because … they would just lay into us with straps and canes for very trivial things.’
Sergei had trouble learning in the orphanage school because incorrect answers were punished with ruthless caning by the nuns.
‘Sister Bernadette stood me in front of the class and bent me over the desk with my trousers down around my ankles, and beat me so severely that I eventually defecated all over the floor in front of the rest of the class.
‘On another occasion Sister Bernadette grabbed me by the ears and repeatedly smashed my head against the wall until I had a severely bleeding head … There was no treatment, medical or otherwise.’
Sergei remembers being lectured by the nuns every day about his worthlessness. ‘They didn’t ask us to come here, they didn’t want us there, we have to be there because our parents didn’t want us.
‘And I used to think that was a bit odd.’
When the boys reached about 10 years of age they were moved into dormitories with older children. ‘That’s when all the sexual abuse started.’
For years on end Sergei was assaulted in the dormitory by a young man who may have been a ‘prefect’ or could have been a worker at the orphanage.
‘All the sexual abuse came from this particular person. He used to walk around in shorts … He asked me one day to put my hand in his pocket and get his keys out. And he had no underwear on and there was no pocket in the thing. That’s how it started.
‘He used to take me to – I think it was a toilet cubicle just off the dormitory area and, yeah, force me to have oral sex … and then it got progressively worse over the however many years I was there.’ This man would often take several boys at a time to a back room and make them perform sex acts.
Sergei believes there was too much going on for the nuns not to know. ‘They were just vicious human beings and I can’t understand how they could reconcile to themselves when they go to prayers two or three times a day, or whatever. How could they live with themselves? I think they must have really believed that was the right way of doing it.’
At 16 Sergei was able to leave the orphanage. He had no education, but was able to choose to work on a farm. Sergei was there for three years. He describes the family on the farm as ‘lovely’, and believes the interlude there prepared him for adult life by showing him that happiness was a possibility.
As an adult Sergei left the country for 20 years and built a professional career in the theatre. That success has helped insulate Sergei from the worst effects of his abuse at the orphanage. Sergei believes he has an inner strength which helped him prosper. His sister was not so lucky and has struggled with mental health problems all her life.
Nevertheless, Sergei describes lifelong impacts that have diminished his enjoyment of life.
‘I always thought that people wanted to have sex with me but they didn’t want to love me … I always thought over the years I used my sexuality to get what I wanted, and I always felt I was doing myself harm by doing that.
‘I still feel very insecure, very insecure all the time. I’ve been in a relationship 27 years with the same person, I still feel that some days this is too good, something’s going to give, it’s not going to last. I always think that people are going to leave me.
‘To this day I have a very dim view and a very bad feeling about authority … I think at times it’s an unhealthy distrust of authority. I think everyone in authority has an agenda … I just don’t trust them.’
Sergei has never been to the police to report his abuse, but he has been a willing participant in several inquiries into the orphanage. He finds the telling of his story emotionally draining. Sergei has never seen a counsellor and is still not interested. He said that he is nervous about ‘delving too deeply into my psyche’.
‘In spite of the orphanage and all that crap that went on with the religious people, I think I’ve come out of it okay. I’m sure I’m mentally scarred, terribly, and emotionally terribly scarred but … I have made a good life for myself. And I think a lot of the boys probably didn’t.
‘You know you are damaged goods, you know that you’re not what you like to think you are. Most times … I can cope with anything, but I know in the back of my mind there are certain things I can’t cope with. And I try not to put myself in those positions.’