Full horror of Neerkol revealed at hearing

A more detailed and distressing picture of what went on at a central Queensland orphanage decades ago has been revealed by a national inquiry.

A stock whip wielded by a young man paints bloody stripes across a small boy's bare back while several nuns and dozens of children watch on.

Another boy is locked in a cramped cupboard for an entire day without food or water.

His crime? Wetting the bed.

A nun drags another child to the priest's quarters and tells him to be a "good boy", before the man who has supposedly committed his life to god forces him into unspeakable acts.

These are not scenes from a film, but the reality for Queensland children who attended St Joseph's Neerkol orphanage, near Rockhampton.

Former Queensland governor Leneen Forde's 1998-1999 inquiry into institutional child abuse exposed the Neerkol nuns' decades-long reign of terror, which was only brought to an end by the orphanage's 1978 closure.

Now, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing has revealed the full horror of what went on in the dormitories, the yards, the dining halls and the priests' quarters not so long ago.

"Neerkol was a place where only the strong survived and the fortunate ones escaped the daily onslaught," 64-year-old former resident Mary Adams told this month's hearing.

"It was a hard lesson in survival."

Over more than three days of testimony former residents graphically recounted a litany of cruel and sadistic punishments meted out by the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the orphanage.

Public floggings. Walking on children in high heels. Beating a boy on the genitals with a ruler while telling him his penis was "the devil". Forcing bed-wetters to stand hungry in the dining room with their urine-soaked sheets draped over their heads while the other children ate breakfast.

In a Rockhampton court room 13 men and women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s entered a witness box one by one and shared their heartbreaking tales last week.

Almost none of the 13 remained dry-eyed.

At Neerkol, it seemed the process of breaking childrens' spirits began on arrival.

Siblings were separated; new arrivals were stripped of their possessions and referred to by their last name or just a number.

Birthdays were recognised only by depraved priests, who used the milestones to give their favoured children a "special gift".

The nuns not only turned a blind eye to the predators, but they facilitated them, and punished children who reported the abuse.

Attempts to blow the whistle always fell on unsympathetic ears.

Ms Adams once confided in a relieving priest who seemed friendly.

He raped her and swore her to secrecy.

Seventy-six-year-old David Owen was brought before a state government inspector at age 15 or 16.

The farmer he'd been sent to work for, Mr Paterson, hadn't liked the blood on the back of his pants - caused by being repeatedly raped by chaplain Father John Anderson.

"He told me I was a good worker but I couldn't go out to service until I stopped bleeding from the backside," Mr Owen testified.

"He said that he knew Fr Anderson was abusing me but I wasn't to tell anyone, and that if I was caught bleeding I was to say that it was piles.

"Mr Paterson and Fr Anderson were friends."

About 4000 children, mostly state wards, passed through the orphanage over its 93 years of operation.

The institution was cash-strapped and grossly understaffed.

Former sister Di-Anne Rowan testified that the nuns may have decided "another level of discipline" was needed to keep the crowds of children in line.

Their scars - both physical and emotional - remained long after they left the orphanage as teens.

Illiteracy, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, rotted teeth, deafness from being repeatedly hit over the ears, the inability to form intimate relationships - these are the legacies of Neerkol.

When Mr Owen and others began coming forward with their stories in the 1990s they were met with disbelief and inaction.

"Scurrilous and scandalous", was how then-Rockhampton bishop Brian Heenan responded publicly to the allegations; "astounding and dismaying" was then-Sisters of Mercy congregational leader Berneice Loch's opinion.

Both Bishop Heenan and Sister Loch were later forced to publicly apologise, and the diocese and Sisters settled a compensation claim made by 72 former residents with a $790,910 payout.

Many victims say it wasn't enough.

"No amount of money can ever give my back my childhood, my loss of confidence, my lack of formal education, dignity, self-esteem or self-worth," Ms Adams said.

Only one of those alleged to have abused children at Neerkol is still alive - former groundsman Kevin Baker.

In the late 1990s Durham and Baker were each charged with dozens of child sex offences.

However the passage of time and the structure of Queensland's then-child sex laws made prosecution difficult.

Only Durham, now deceased, was convicted and jailed.

He served just a few months, while none of the Neerkol nuns were ever charged.

A final report on the matter is due to be delivered by the royal commission later this year.

At least one former Neerkol resident has found some solace in the public hearing.

"I feel as though through the royal commission that I am finally being heard after this process has taken over 20 years," said 62-year-old Diane Carpenter.

"I realise I can't change history but want to prevent similar things happening in the future.

"Children desperately need to be protected."

Source AAP

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