‘My parents split up during the war. We were sort of left on our own quite a bit with different relations and stuff like that and our father was looking after us but he didn’t cope because he had an alcohol problem.’
‘So we had a pretty rough few years when we were kids, sleeping under houses and all this sort of stuff and then finally the person that my father worked for arranged to have us put into [the boys’ home] which was basically a Catholic institution’. Vernon was 10 years old when he was sent to the home in Western Australia in the late 1940s.
During the four years he was at the boys’ home, Vernon was sexually abused by some older boys, and one of the Christian Brothers. He was also subjected to physical abuse, bad food, and harsh working conditions.
‘You used to get the strap for sort of … misdemeanours that you did, or if you didn’t eat your meals … The meals were really quite awful … If you didn’t eat what you were dished up, you didn’t get anything else and you could be strapped around the legs for it … If you didn’t do the work and stuff that you were supposed to do … there were some terrible jobs we had to do … The worst one I can still remember is bucketing out the septic systems into big drums … If you didn’t do what you were told, you would get the strap for that.’
Vernon believes that he wasn’t the only boy sexually abused at the home. He told the Commissioner, ‘We slept in these big dormitories and some of the Brothers were always like prowling around at night-time and that’s when my experience happened, and I did think that there was things going on like that’.
The Brother who sexually abused Vernon told him not to tell anyone, but he doesn’t think he would have reported it because ‘I think I was embarrassed or I felt shame, and not knowing any different I suppose, because I hadn’t had much of a childhood before that, so I didn’t know right from wrong’.
Vernon left the boys’ home in his mid-teens. ‘They found me a job to go to and I lived with an aunty at the time. Went on for many years, making my own way through the world … I went to the country and worked in wheat bins and stuff like that, until finally got married.
‘But I sort of had troubles showing my emotions and things and I don’t know if it’s part of my upbringing but I sort of felt that I had to keep on working all the time, from my school days because after school we used to have to do manual work.’
Many years after the abuse, Vernon began to suffer depression at work, ‘trying to work too hard to please the bosses, I think’. He was off work for some months, and went back on lesser duties until he retired.
Vernon used to ‘just shrug things off and think, that was life, I just had to keep working. I still have emotional problems. In a way, I find it difficult to say to someone, even my wife, “I love you”. I find that difficult to say, you know. And I certainly do love her, but I find it difficult to express myself’.
Vernon never told anyone about his years at the boys’ home, until his sister told him about a redress scheme in Western Australia. It was then that the memories of the abuse were triggered. Up until then, ‘I sort of led my life just going along as normal until [my sister reminded me] and it sort of made you start thinking of all the things that did happen in those days’.
At times, friends would mention the boys’ home and ask him if anything happened to him there. ‘I’d always say, “No, no, no. Nothing ever happened to me”. And I still don’t tell my friends.’ It was only when the redress scheme came up that Vernon told his wife and children some of the details about his time in the home.
Now that Vernon ‘keeps on thinking about these things’, he’s begun reflecting on the fact that ‘quite a few of my friends … have had loving families and stuff like that and I think, I wonder if I could have done better in life if I hadda had a family upbringing and a better education. I sort of think maybe I have been inconvenienced or something from lack of education and that, and I do still think that’.
‘I’d like to think that children [can] grow up in a normal type home … have a happy childhood. Unfortunately, I didn’t’.