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Shawn's story

‘Everyone would come to me with their problems. That’s why I knew what was happening. I tried to protect them, but I couldn’t look after 48 kids.’

At 12 years of age, Shawn stood six feet tall and fellow students often turned to him for advice and help. He counselled as best he could, but beyond Shawn there was no one for boys to report the physical and sexual abuse being perpetrated upon them. The New South Wales school was a residential facility for boys with physical and intellectual disabilities and was run by the St John of God Brothers.

Boys’ physical disabilities ranged from difficulties with walking to those who needed the assistance of a ventilator to breathe. Several boys couldn’t speak. Brother Neil Foley was known as the worst offender when it came to meting out physical violence and his punishment had no regard for a child’s functional ability. In addition to spontaneous cruelty, Foley made a weekly demonstration of punishing children for misdemeanours purportedly committed on visits home for the weekend.

Shawn told the Commissioner that every Monday morning the boys would be taken to the auditorium where Foley would select and line up more than a dozen students. ‘Up to 20 kids were caned from head to toe until they couldn’t stand up anymore. Then he’d hold them up and still keep beating them.’

Shawn’s arrival in the late 1970s at the age of 11 coincided with his parents moving house and for the first eight weeks he stayed in the school on weekends. During this time he was sexually abused by the caretaker, Mr Clancy, who would take Shawn into a room, pull down his pants and fondle his genitals. He’d then try and get Shawn to do the same to him. When Shawn and another boy reported the caretaker to Foley, the Brother responded by saying, ‘kids that tell lies get punished’.

Each week a social worker from the New South Wales Education Department visited the school and on one of these occasions, Shawn told the worker he was being menaced for money by another boy. Soon afterward, Shawn was paraded in front of the school and ridiculed for making the allegation.

‘After that I knew I couldn’t trust the worker’, Shawn said. ‘Other boys told me that he told the Brothers everything.’

One day Foley picked up a broom and threatened Shawn who turned it around, holding it to Foley’s throat against the wall. Frightened of repercussions, Shawn then lay awake at night listening to hear if Foley was coming to sexually abuse him like he did other boys.

At night, Foley regularly came into the room Shawn shared with another boy, Jeff. Foley would put his hand under Jeff’s bedcovers and fondle his genitals before leaving to go into other boys’ rooms. ‘Jeff used to cry himself to sleep afterwards’, Shawn said. ‘It was very distressing. Each morning I had to try and comfort him.’ As well as visiting boys’ rooms, Shawn said Foley would take students in the school van under the pretext of giving them a driving lesson and when they returned boys would often be upset and crying.

Shawn told the Commissioner that there was nowhere to report the abuse. Telling NSW Police was out of the question because on numerous occasions Foley had taken boys he didn’t like to the police station where they’d be locked in a cell for the night. From 1980, the school became a repository for boys with behavioural problems who arrived in a police car and with handcuffs on. ‘One boy was brought in because his mother died and he’d stolen a motorbike to go to her funeral.’

In the early 2000s, Shawn was contacted by police who were investigating complaints of sexual abuse by Foley. Shawn began making a statement but he became unwell before he could finalise it. In the intervening three years, Shawn had been ringing the police officer trying to complete his statement, but each time was told the officer wasn’t available. ‘They’d promise they’d pass on [the message to the officer], but I never got any more contact.’

Shawn said his time in the St John of God institution had ruined his education. ‘When I left school it made it nearly impossible to get a job.’ He wasn’t sure why he’d been sent there in the first place and over the years many teachers had asked him the same thing.

In the late 2000s, Shawn disclosed the abuse to his mother who replied that it wasn’t her fault. She had her own problems, he said, stemming in large part from 10 years she’d spent in an orphanage from the age of five. ‘My mother’s still got marks on her body where she was hit with jug cords.’

Shawn found out in later years that several Brothers besides Foley had sexually abused boys at the school. The sexual abuse was permitted to occur he said, because government and police workers tacitly approved and were complicit in the physical and psychological abuse that permitted sexual abuse to go unreported and unaddressed. ‘The school was ruled to be violent.’

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