In the mid-1940s, around the age of three, Wilt was placed in a protestant orphanage near Melbourne. He has no memory of his family. ‘Never seen them in my life.’
Physical abuse was a common occurrence at the home. Wilt remembered a song the children who went to the orphanage school would sing about the teachers: ‘Mr Smith goes to church every Sunday, prays to God to give him strength so he can belt the bloody kids on Monday.’ There was also never enough to eat.
‘We were eating out of the garbage bins and whatever fruit we could pinch out of the orchards at night. You just ran your own race and got whatever you could till they got you and flogged you.
‘It wasn’t real good but it’s the only thing we had. Because when you’re brought up that way that’s all you understand, you think it’s part and parcel of life.’
Wilt was first sexually abused when he was about nine years old. ‘You had kids that grew up in the orphanage, and they had nowhere to go when they left school so they used to work the farm. So you had them, you know … they used to tamper with the younger ones.’
There was also abuse by a female staff member, who would get Wilt alone and fondle his genitals.
‘It happened a few times and that was it. You … stood up for yourself.’
There was no one working at the orphanage who Wilt felt he could tell about the abuse, and he never laid eyes on a caseworker or youth worker. ‘There was nothing round like that in them days.’
As he got older, Wilt spent some holidays with a foster family. Just before he became a teenager, they asked if he’d like to come and live with them. ‘I said, “I’ll do anything to get out of that place”. They were good people.’
Later on Wilt spent a couple of years doing what he called ‘slave labour’ on a farm, then moved to the city and worked different jobs. ‘I’ve done a bit of everything, mate.’
He never spoke much about his life in the orphanage. ‘I tried to tell people years ago and they said it was all rubbish. So in the end I just couldn’t be bothered talking about it.’
In the late 2000s Wilt started hearing about survivors approaching institutions and reporting their abuse. He came forward and, with the help of a lawyer, he received some compensation from the Victorian Government. This was the first time he’d really talked about the sexual abuse.
The support and advocacy service Open Place also helped him get some of his records from the orphanage. ‘But there’s still a lot missing in the jigsaw.’
Around this time Wilt decided to get some help for his mental health. ‘I saw a psychiatrist and he reckons I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. I said, “You’re kidding, aren’t you? From them days?” “He said, “Yeah”. I said, “You’re joking”.’
Wilt realised that he’d battled depression, too. ‘I heard of people with depression, I never believed it. But by God, when it hits you …’
As he’s done all his life, Wilt ran his own race. ‘Those pills are no damn good. I flushed them all down the toilet and never looked back.’ But he also came to understand the full impact of his time in the orphanage.
‘I got told in that place “you don’t belong” so you always had that feeling you don’t belong nowhere.
‘It’s very, very hard to get near someone, you know what I mean? Very hard.
‘Those things that happened, I suppose, would have had side effects somewhere along the line. When you grow up and get a bit older and that you think, “Jesus Christ, the way we were brought up wasn’t exactly normal, was it?”’
For a private man like Wilt, telling his story to the Royal Commission wasn’t easy.
‘It’s like unlocking an old suitcase, mate. I don’t know what’s inside. It takes a hell of a lot to remember.’
But he told the Commissioner that he’s in a good place now.
‘I’m at that stage, mate, I don’t give a damn. I always get up because it’s a brand new day untouched. No one’s buggered it up on you.’