From three weeks of age, Thomas said, he was labelled a ‘bastard’, made a ward of the state and placed in a Catholic orphanage. When he turned 10, in the late 1940s, he recalled being sent to a St John of God institution in New South Wales, for intellectually disabled boys. The nuns sent him there because they believed he was ‘slow’. Later in life it was found that his early learning difficulties were due to his limited hearing.
On arrival at the place, ‘I was told I was too smart for school so sent to work there seven days a week milking cows, polishing floors and cutting timber. I had to look after a boy. He was what they called one of the “specials”, he was severely handicapped, they had a lot of them there. I had to bath him, feed him. He’d come around with me on my chores.’
For six years Thomas was sexually abused by at least five of the Brothers there. He received no further education.
‘I remember going to the outside toilet one night, was coming back in and one of the Brothers grabbed me and took me back to the toilet. He sat me on his lap and started to masturbate me. They were the house devil and the street angel, the public saw them as wonderful people but they were all evil and sick. They’d often dress us up as girls, it seemed to turn them on.’
In an attempt to protect themselves, Thomas recalled, boys would brick up windows to stop the Brothers from climbing through. But those boys were beaten with broomsticks as punishment.
Fearing they wouldn’t be believed by police ‘who were all Catholics’, Thomas and others didn’t report the abuse.
‘The boys said, “Don’t say anything about it”, 'cause in those days nobody would believe you. In those days you’d got to learn to respect your authorities otherwise you’d get the old steel-nosed boot right where it’s going to hurt you. People would look down at you more so, so you had to keep that within your own self.’
At 16 Thomas was sent to work in Sydney, and once there, he rang St Mary’s Cathedral to report the abuse.
‘It was the first thing I wanted to do because I still had a lot of bitter inside me, hatred you know. I got the cold turkey off them twice.’
Thomas said he turned to running seven days a week as a way of ‘escaping’ and married at 23.
‘I met an angel in finding Grace. The amount of boys that ended up committing suicide, I’d have finished up like them if it wasn’t for her. I always managed to get jobs, but could never keep them. I had to fill out paperwork and I’d say I left my glasses outside in the car, then give it to Grace and she’d fill it out for me, and that was the only way I could bluff my way through all those jobs.’
Thomas feels the abuse robbed him of his basic rights. He commenced a civil action with two other men in the mid-1990s.
‘I went to my local church and spoke to someone who knew the men who abused me, and he said “Oh no, no, no, I know these Brothers too well, they wouldn’t do that”. Complete denial. There were pictures of the men who’d raped me on the walls in the room.’
Before the case went to court, Thomas said, the Church settled and each of the men received $50,000.
‘The system we have now is not going to stop people from getting through the loophole. I’ll do anything to get this out in the arena, so it can never be repeated again. I’m 74 and still having nightmares over it. Even when they gave the money, there was no admission. That’s the sad part I think.’