Because Willard’s mother was only 16 years old when he was born in the mid-1930s, he was immediately placed in a Catholic orphanage in his homeland of Ireland. When he was eight years old he was put on a ship bound for Australia, as part of the child migrant scheme.
Upon disembarking in Western Australia, Willard was sent to a boys’ home run by the Christian Brothers, where he found discipline was harsh and swiftly dealt.
‘The Christian Brothers, they were tough. They were very tough … But at the period of time you just had to put up with it … I don’t hold any animosity to the Christian Brothers because, me being shy and very quiet, I never got into trouble. The others that got into trouble, oh my God! ... The beatings were very bad.’
At the home, Willard received no education but was instead put to work on the farm. ‘I had a very poor education.’ As a quiet and shy boy, he concentrated on staying out of trouble in order to avoid punishment.
‘I know a lot of boys have seen really [bad] things. And from what I can gather, the biggest was sexual assault and thrashings. Oh my heart, the thrashings – they were bad.’
At nearly 16 years old, Willard left the home and was sent to work on a private farm. Although he was supposed to be paid a small wage for his labour with the rest put into a trust account, he found that his naivety and lack of education meant he was exploited and only ever received pocket money to go into town with.
‘There was not such a thing as pay day … The farmers took advantage of me as a child migrant … as cheap labour …
‘I worked hard. I’m not patting myself on the back, but I know in my mind that I worked very hard for these people. Particularly with their seven days a week. Even on Christmas Day I was still working. Still never got paid.’
On one occasion, Willard accompanied his boss to Perth when he was allowed some free time to attend the cinema. While sitting inside the movie theatre, an unknown man sat next to him and began stroking his leg. Being naive with no life skills, Willard did not know how to respond. After the movie finished, Willard accepted the stranger’s offer of a lift during which he parked the car and sexually abused him.
‘He didn’t threaten me but he talked to me for a while. But like I said, I was totally naive … When I went home the people asked me, “How’d the pictures go?” I said, “Good” … Those things weren’t even talked about or even thought about.’
Filled with confusion and shame, Willard never disclosed the abuse to anyone. He continued to work for many years as an exploited farm labourer before approaching the Christian Brothers with a business proposal. His proposal was agreed to and for about the next 20 years he worked hard to establish the business. He then sold it and went to work in the transport industry until he retired.
Willard married and had two children, both of whom have had successful careers in their respective fields. He was in his 60s when he discovered his parents died in the Second World War and most of his extended family had also passed away. He later discovered he had three cousins in Australia and he has since connected with them.
Several years before approaching the Royal Commission, Willard lodged an application with Redress WA and received a $28,000 ex gratia payment. He still carried shame from his sexual abuse encounter and hadn’t disclosed it.
‘They said, “If you make a statement relating to sexual abuse then the police will come next week and you’ll have to give them a statement”. And I thought, well, I don’t want to go down that track. And that was basically it.’ He later found out that peers from his time in the home disclosed the sexual abuse they experienced and received considerably higher compensation payments. ‘I probably did myself a bit of an injustice by not putting it in there.’
Before speaking to the Royal Commission, Willard had never told anyone about his sexual abuse. ‘I just kept it to myself. Like I said, I’m 80 now and I was only 16. So that’s 65 years … It’s a long time but I never told anybody.’
He still carried shame about the incident as well as regret for being exploited as a farm labourer for so long. He is, however, proud of the success he achieved in his career, his happy marriage, and his children.