‘That’s what kept me going, knowing that I wasn’t going to be there forever … We knew at some stage we were going to be able to leave.’
Wilfred was describing the four months he and his younger brother Tommy spent at an Anglican orphanage in rural Victoria in the early 1960s. The boys were two of seven children, all of whom needed to go into care when their mother was hospitalised with a serious illness. Wilfred was nine at the time, and Tommy was five.
The boys found themselves victimised immediately. Both wet the bed every night and were brutally punished for it. Their sheets were hung from their bedroom window to humiliate them and they were verbally abused by staff. As well, each day they were locked in what Wilfred described as a hole in the ground.
‘That’s where we spent our weekends and all our free time, and we never really got to talk to anyone, because we were just totally isolated from them’, Wilfred said. ‘We just spent day in day out in that hole in the ground. You could just look through a crack in the lid type of thing, and you could see people running around and everything, but that’s where we were.’
One day when Wilfred was returning from school, he was grabbed by some bigger boys and forced into nearby bushes. There they took turns raping him. The shock of the assault was made worse by the sudden knowledge it triggered in Wilfred – that this had been done to him before, by his father.
‘When it happened I realised that my Dad had done the same. Dad never penetrated or anything but I remember Dad doing it … He said “Dads do this with their boys”, you know, and I believed him. I was probably four then, or something.’ His father, Wilfred understood later, was a paedophile. ‘None of us kids was safe from him.’
Wilfred didn’t say anything about the rape at the time, and nor did he say anything when the same boys sexually assaulted him again a few weeks later. By then he’d been conditioned by the harsh treatment he’d received to feel that whatever happened, he deserved it. ‘I felt like that for years’, he said. ‘You’re totally worthless. We were just dirty, smelly, horrible, bloody little bastards. You end up leaving there conditioned that you’re a loser.’
Wilfred’s experience at the orphanage changed him. ‘I was never the same after I come back from the orphanage … The whole world was a different kettle of fish for me.’
Wilfred left school at 15. He found work and various short-term jobs followed. In his late teens his boss turned a blind eye to his lack of schooling and supported him through a four-year apprenticeship. ‘If I hadn’t done that I reckon I would have killed myself.’
Alcohol and other drugs were central to Wilfred’s life at that stage and remained so for a long time. ‘I was probably drunk for 35 years or something.’ His substance use was a way to self-medicate. ‘A lot of the time when I‘d be hitting up I‘d be “Let this one put me to sleep” … I just wanted peace. I wanted my brain to leave me alone.’
Throughout this time Wilfred still had not spoken about his experiences at the orphanage. He was in and out of mental health facilities and drug and alcohol rehab programs, but whenever he felt pressure to reveal what had happened, he withdrew. ‘They wanted to find out what your inner demons were, and I didn’t want to tell them about it.’
He only spoke about it once, to his then wife, about 30 years ago. ‘I basically told her so she could try and understand me.’ She did understand – she’d also been abused, by her stepfather – but in the end it wasn’t enough to keep the couple together and they separated some five years later.
In the early 2000s, after living overseas for many years, Wilfred moved back to Australia. He’d been a largely absent father to his daughters growing up and now they wanted him to spend more and better time with them and his grandchildren. Finally, he was able to give up alcohol. ‘I just woke up one day and thought “That’s it, I’m not drinking any more”.’
These days he has a good rapport with his grandchildren and they are much in his mind.
‘My biggest strength is they’ll never see me drunk’, he said, and it feels good to know they’ll miss him when he’s gone. ‘They’ll go “He never drank, he was never nasty, he never swore”’.
With the assistance of a Victorian support group. Wilfred has now reported his abuse to the police. And speaking to the Royal Commission has been very important. ‘I never ever thought I’d get the opportunity to talk about this – let alone be believed. My biggest thing is belief: I wake up some mornings and I think, “Did that really happen to me? Am I lying to myself? No, I’m not”.’