Australia

'I was forced to hold on to an electric fence'

EXCLUSIVE: Daryl was put into a children’s home when he was four years old. He would later be abused by a priest.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivers its final report on 15 December. More than 8,000 survivors took part in private sessions over the past five years. SBS News speaks to some of them.

WARNING: Some readers may find this content distressing.

 

In all his 68 years, Daryl Higgins can recall only one instance where he wasn’t in physical or emotional pain.

“I felt absolutely magnificent,” he tells SBS News of that Saturday afternoon more than four decades ago.

“I was playing cricket at the time and I probably was about 22, 23. And I felt, ‘gee, I'm doing things and I'm not feeling any pain. This is unbelievable’.”

As a member of the Forgotten Australians – an estimated 500,000 people who experienced institutional or other out-of-home care as children and young people in the 20th century in Australia – other sporting memories carry less happy associations.

Like the day in 1952 when Daryl and his older brothers were swept away by the Catholic Church from their North Sydney home after a game of street cricket.

“There was a truck pulled up outside the house,” he says.

“There were two nuns, three policemen in uniform. They picked up me and my two brothers. Put on the back of the truck and taken up to Kincumber, which is on the (NSW) Central Coast.”

“It was basically on my fourth birthday. I will never forget that.”

Daryl Higgins as a child, front, with his father Jack, centre, and brothers Lawrence, left, and Keith, right.
Daryl Higgins as a child, front, with his father Jack, centre, and brothers Lawrence, left, and Keith, right.
Supplied

The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart – whose convent was on the same street as the Higgins family home – removed the three children, Daryl says, because their mother was unwell.

They placed them in the care of St Joseph’s, a children’s home at Kincumber South, where nuns from the same religious order would look on as Daryl was physically and mentally brutalised. He was also abused by a priest.

Neatly dressed with close-cropped white hair and piercing blue eyes, Daryl’s voice breaks as he details the horrors of an institutionalised childhood.

“I do remember there was an electric fence to keep the cattle,” he says.

“I was forced to hold on to that electric fence and the nuns and the older kids just laughed and thought that was good fun. It definitely wasn't.”

The nuns and the older kids just laughed

What was seemingly off limits was meaningful contact with his family. Daryl’s father Jack, as a non-Catholic, was required to donate money to the church in order to see his children. Despite that, he was not allowed to take his children home to celebrate Christmas.

“The mother superior said, ‘Jack, you can't take these boys with you because you're not a Catholic so they won't be attending church while at your home. And we can't allow the boys to go home with you."

Daryl was at the children’s home when his mother died.

“And we were told, basically off-handed, that's what happened,” he says. “We weren't allowed to go to the funeral.”

Daryl Higgins today.
Daryl today.

It is the lost connection to family he says he misses the most.

“The biggest disappointment in my life is not knowing my family, even though I keep in contact with my brothers,” he says. “But the extended family, I'm just not in contact with them at all. We had a younger sister and we didn't find her until she was in her forties.”

Daryl, who hardly saw his siblings while in the children’s home, saw even less of them when he left for “the lesser of two evils”. He and his brother Lawrence were fostered out to a strict Catholic family when he was nine. They abandon him when he was 14.

“I came home one day and the house was all locked and my foster parents had moved,” he says.

“I had no idea where they had gone to. Eventually, I found out they moved back to their hometown in Victoria.”

I came home one day ... and my foster parents had moved

He slept rough and delivered telegrams until he found a job that included accommodation, in a hospital laundry.

From there he worked in “hundreds of jobs” – apprentice butcher, bricklayer, builder, shearer, fitter on the railways – until landing a job with Telecom, later known as Telstra.

“That gave me regular income. So then I was able to afford a unit, a flat of my own.”

The Sydney resident, who has now retired after spending most of his career working in IT, revisited his childhood memories in a session with the royal commission in December 2014.

“It wasn't healing, it was traumatic,” Daryl says of the experience, describing it as harrowing but necessary.

“But I had a lot of respect for the commissioner … He was listening.”

In response to Daryl’s story, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart apologised “unreservedly” to former residents of Kincumber who suffered abuse while in their care.

“We acknowledge the lasting, damaging impact of this abuse on the survivors,” congregational leader Sister Monica Cavanagh said in a statement.

“We are profoundly sorry for the pain and trauma they experienced and for the impact it has had on their lives over many years.”

Sister Cavanagh said the order will review the frameworks it has developed to prevent future abuse in light of the findings and recommendations of the commission.

St Joseph’s Home closed in closed in 1979.

Daryl does not have much faith that the commission would create lasting change, but he hoped it would at least prompt authorities to consider a health care card like that offered to veterans who survived the traumas of war.

“We had our own war, and we had to fight it,” he says.

Despite his setbacks, Daryl went on to marry, and he and his wife Lei have three children.

“My wife did all the looking after because I had no idea how to raise a family or what to do or what not to do,” he says.

Daryl is proud of his family - and of himself, given what he has overcome.

“One of our friends once said …‘You've done well. You're a survivor.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, guess I am, actually.’”

 

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