Theodore was 11 when he was made a ward of the state and sent to a government reception centre, while he awaited a longer-term placement elsewhere. One day he was made to clean the stairs with a toothbrush as punishment for some infringement he can no longer remember.
‘I was dawdling with it’, Theodore said. ‘And I think I was being a bit of a smart arse, if you like.’ The staff member supervising him, Ian Jones, beckoned him into a small room nearby.
‘The way that I remember it is that he wanted me to stand next to him. I thought he was going to give me a dressing down … Instead he’s just – whack! between the eyes, and I just fell to the floor unconscious. And when I woke up, my shorts were around my – down below my legs – and he was pressing on top of me and I was in pain.
'When he withdrew, I screamed, and then he threatened me just to shut the hell up. He didn’t use those words, but I’m just giving you the gist of it’, Theodore told the Commissioner.
After raping Theodore, Jones locked him in the punishment cell, where he was visited a short while later by the superintendent, Andrew Dalton. ‘I had two black eyes, because I later determined that, and I had a bloody nose … And I was bleeding from down, you know, the backside … Certainly there was plenty of evidence of abuse.’
Theodore told Dalton that Jones had hit him and hurt him badly. Dalton wasn’t interested. He made Theodore stay in the cell overnight, as a further punishment. ‘The failure of those in authority to make proper enquiries should be one of the areas where the Royal Commission’s light should be shone’, Theodore wrote in a statement he brought to the Commission.
This incident was the worst of the many episodes of abuse that Theodore experienced at the reception centre and other residential institutions in Melbourne in the early 1960s. One of the security staff made Theodore masturbate him and perform oral sex. He was assaulted by older boys in the dormitory at night, and witnessed other boys being abused as well.
One night he woke up and saw an older boy sitting on the bed of a nine- or 10-year-old. The younger boy was whimpering softly. After a while the older boy jumped under the covers with the younger boy. There was movement in the bed, and then the older boy left.
‘I became terribly afraid. Although I can’t remember clearly, I think I started to cry. I was scared that what happened in the other bed would happen to me.’ A short while later, and often, it did.
The first time it happened Theodore felt traumatised, guilty and deeply ashamed. There was no one he could report the abuse to. Staff actively discouraged the ‘telling of tales’. There were cultural reasons too. Theodore’s family had immigrated to Australia from eastern Europe – his parents came first and Theodore, with his brothers, came when he was eight.
‘It would be very hard for me to try and capture it in words, but you can be assured that somebody from my ethnic background, you know … A man’s a man, type of thing, and this sort of thing was – well, you certainly didn’t talk about it.’
Instead, Theodore ran away, and was caught by police and brought back. This occurred numerous times. ‘I used to run away to get away from all of this. And the thing that on reflection … one can see that I was never actually properly asked any questions in respect to my behaviour. Why was I running away? … No proper investigation was ever made.’
One consequence of these experiences has been lifelong issues with authority, leading to frequent conflict with police and others in the criminal justice system. ‘I developed a hatred of authority which was quite – quite irrational. I mean, I can recognise that it’s irrational’, Theodore said.
He described other impacts too. ‘I had suicidal thoughts and I had – you know, suffered from anxiety. I couldn’t keep relationships and I still have difficulty … And I ended up with two children who I feel very, very guilty about. I mean, they come and stay with me every weekend, but I don’t see myself as a real father, you know what I mean?’
Psychiatric support has begun to make a significant difference in recent years. Theodore was first referred to a psychiatrist when he was released from jail after a wrongful conviction. While incarcerated he had lost his home and his business. His GP told him, ‘You’ve got serious problems and they should be dealt with by a psychiatrist’.
Reluctantly, Theodore took his advice. ‘If you’re seen as a bit of a basket case, there’s a stigma attached to it unfortunately. But anyway I did go.’
He now credits that psychiatrist with saving his life. Even so, he never disclosed his abuse to him. ‘It was simply too hard and I didn’t recognise that it had any relevance to my current malaise.’
That connection was only made by a second psychiatrist who Theodore started seeing several years ago, and to whom he eventually revealed his childhood experiences. ‘He’s the one who drew the impact to me, right? … You know it had an impact, but you sort of cop it on the chin and get on with life. It’s not the sort of thing you dwell on … But of course it’s buried, it’s in there, it eats away like a cancer.’
Theodore’s two brothers were also abused in the institutions. Only one of them is still alive, and he too is deeply troubled.
‘I don’t think we fared too well, either of us’, Theodore said. ‘Which is unfortunate, because the costs to society must be huge. Not only to house us in a prison, but to deal with the crime and to deal with the – you know, the constant disruption that we bring to relationships.’
‘I mean, I have a degree. I got a degree in jail, an arts degree … I know I could have been anything, and look, what a tragic waste, in the sense that I’ve brought a lot of harm to society, you know, and I could have brought so much good.’