‘There was absolutely no point in raising the issue, even with your parents. They were Catholics, they wouldn’t believe that the Christian Brothers would do anything like that … The Brothers would totally deny that it happened.’
Willis was raised by a devout mother, and lived in a regional town in Queensland during the 1950s. His father left the family when Willis was three, and this had been devastating for the family.
As primary students, Willis and his siblings initially attended a state school, where the teachers were friendly. However, when Willis was nine the children were enrolled by their mother in a Catholic school. Willis stayed there until the late 1960s when he was 15. The school was run by the Christian Brothers, some of whom were violent and cruel.
‘One Brother would go into rages, foam at the mouth. On his desk he had a map of the world … he threw that on top of a pupil … He’d go around the class and give everyone six cuts – he gave me 12 for some reason.’
To this day, Willis wasn’t sure why some of the Brothers picked on him. He disliked the fact that they were harder on him than his peers. Willis has assumed they hurt him more because he was an athlete and they thought he could handle the punishment. It was always done in front of others.
When Willis was 13, a new Brother arrived in the middle of the school year. This seemed odd as usually a new Brother would start the school year with the rest of the students.
Brother Neil Beyer was known to touch the boys inappropriately and got a nickname within his first week at the school. ‘He’d sit down next to students and help them with their homework problems, and he just couldn’t keep his hands off you.’
The following year during sports practice, Willis was sexually abused by Beyer. Beyer was showing Willis how to do a move and used this opportunity to rub his hand up Willis’s leg and under his shorts. Shocked and disgusted, Willis pushed Beyer’s hand away and walked off.
That was the end of Willis’s sporting career, as he could no longer be around males in sporting authority. He dropped out of sports and kept his distance from Beyer throughout the rest of his schooling. He found it hard to concentrate and his results declined immediately. He didn’t speak of what happened.
‘I would have spoken about [the abuse] at home, but not to the school … My parents knew that they wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.’
Several months after the abuse, Beyer left the school in the middle of term. Again this seemed odd because no other Brother had done so before. There was talk among the students that Beyer left because he had raped several boys in the toilets. Willis had heard that four sets of parents complained about Beyer to the school.
Willis was 16 when he left the school. He refused to put up with the punishments any longer. He wasn’t alone; several other boys quit around the same time, tired of the brutality. Willis went to another school to complete his education: ‘I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.’
Willis never saw Beyer again and believes the Brother was moved from school to school. He didn’t report Beyer to the police or talk much about the abuse, unless a school friend brought up Beyer’s name. It took Willis a long time to realise that what Beyer had done was a crime.
As soon as Willis finished school, he left the Catholic Church forever. He doesn’t respect clergy because he believed many cases of physical and sexual abuse have been covered up. He also doesn’t respect anyone in authority.
‘The Christian Brothers are just absolute shit … Love thy neighbour and they’re flogging the hell out of you.’
In the mid 1980s Willis went to university to study. By then he was in his mid 30s, and he felt embarrassed about his age in comparison with other students. Afterwards he found full-time employment and for years travelled around the country with his work. He is very thankful for his wife, who motivated him to study.
Willis contacted a support advocacy in the late 2000s to find information about Beyer. It upset him that he received no reply. He came to the Royal Commission to share his story and hoped that in doing so he could provide a voice for those who weren’t able to speak up about their abuse.