Thomas John's story

When Thomas was about four, in the mid-1950s, his mother died. His father had died a few years before. Left with no one to care for them, Thomas and his siblings were placed in a Catholic orphanage in Melbourne. When he was about seven – he’s not sure exactly how old he was – he was transferred from there to a Christian Brothers home in a regional Victorian town.

Thomas had got used to a tough environment by then. The nuns at the orphanage were rough and unkind and dished out harsh punishments - beltings, depriving children of food, and more. Thomas was treated kindly by one trainee nun, Sophia, who later left the Church and became a lifelong friend and support to him.

Thomas hadn’t been at the Christian Brothers’ home for long before he was sexually abused by Brother Winslow. Thomas first encountered him in the showers. Brother Winslow patrolled shower time, making boys turn to face him and leave their genitals exposed. One night Thomas woke up to find Winslow on top of him, his hand over Thomas’s mouth as he rubbed his face against Thomas’ cheek and masturbated beneath his habit.

‘I wet the bed while this was happening to me so in the morning I had to stand out in front of everybody else and with the others who wet their beds and get the strap’, Thomas recalled in a written statement.

These assaults in the dormitory happened several times. There were other incidents as well. Winslow would also summon Thomas to his room, where he’d sit Thomas on his lap – ‘You could feel his penis getting hard’. The abuse continued for about two years.

Early on, Thomas tried reporting Winslow to Brother Hopkins, who was in charge. ‘I went to his office after breakfast and told him what Brother Winslow was doing to me at night and he asked me if I was sure that’s what he was doing. I said yes and he told me he would look into it.’

The next day after breakfast Brother Hopkins summoned Thomas to the front of the room. ‘This is what happens to people who tell lies’, he announced, before giving Thomas ‘six of the best on each hand’ – not just that day but for the next five mornings as well.

‘I believe all that he’d done is sweep it under the carpet and thought, “Well, we don’t have to worry about this because no one’s going to be replacing this carpet, in our time”.’

Thomas didn’t disclose Winslow’s abuse to anyone at the orphanage again.

During his time at the orphanage, Thomas was sent with his brother Max to several placements elsewhere. Over one holiday period they stayed with a family who kept them locked up in a cage. Thomas asked Brother Hopkins not to send them there again but he did. Another time they were sent to a family with a boy of about 18, Angus. Angus took any opportunity to fondle and masturbate Thomas, who recalls the abuse occurring on an almost daily basis. Back at the orphanage Thomas told several Brothers about Angus, and asked not to be sent back to the family. Once again he was ignored – he and Max were sent there about four times, he believes. He was abused by Angus every time and suspects Max was as well.

As a teenager, Thomas was placed in a family cottage, designed to give boys a taste of family life. The cottage parents were brutal. ‘Richard was a person that would rather punch you in the face than slap ya. Beryl – she was just vicious. A vicious woman.’ Eventually Thomas took up an apprenticeship and left. ‘It wasn’t a good farewell. It was a bag, the door and see ya later.’

Thomas didn’t speak about his experiences of abuse for a long time. He went on to be successful in his working life, but in other ways he struggled. ‘When I first left the boys’ home, I would not go into a shop if there was two people in there. I was too scared to go in’, he told the Commissioner. He has been medicated for depression and anxiety for many years, and attempted suicide several times. He had a ‘bad nervous breakdown’, and was helped back to recovery by Sophia, who’d he’d met at the orphanage many years before, and his wife, Anne.

He and Anne have been married for over 40 years, and for most of that time she had no idea about what had happened to him. But she lived with the impacts: ‘I wasn’t the best husband I could have been in the early years. I was violent. I was a drunk. Then reality hit home and I’ve tried to catch up ever since. But it’s a hard thing to do’.

He finally disclosed to her after he was approached by the Victorian police taskforce SANO to give evidence against Brother Winslow, in the early 2010s. One day when Thomas was out Anne answered the phone and it was a SANO officer. ‘Well, when I got home the wife asked what it was all about … so I did the only thing I could do. I called my family together and told them but did not go into details and I asked them never ask me to read the statement I was about to give to the taskforce.’

Thomas found the experience of giving a statement very positive. ‘It was very refreshing – I really felt good. I thought I’d beaten [my] demons.’ Police investigations into both Brother Winslow and Angus are now underway. As well, Thomas’s contact with SANO led him to seek counselling and eventually to connect with a support group and the Royal Commission.

Thomas has not sought compensation from the Church. His brother Max, who died recently, hadn’t either. Thomas would like to see changes to the law to allow families such as his brother’s to pursue a claim even though the victim is no longer alive. He believes it’s imperative that compensation should be administered by an independent body, and not the institution itself. And he would like to see more consistency in the fees charged by lawyers, and a cap on the percentage of any payment they can take.

‘I know of three people who have received payments and have lost over 50 percent. So that to me isn’t fair.’

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