When hell is a children's home

AAP, Australi/November 22, 2013

By Annette Blackwell

This is a true story about money, power, sex and religion.

It is about a time when bishops reigned supreme in the Protestant church.

It tells of a hell-hole where decade after decade children were flogged with canes, pony whips and belts until they bled.

It is a horror story about how the very young were often raped by pastors and others and sometimes subjected to pseudo-religious sexual rituals.

For a while there was a grand entrance sign proclaiming the bleak place a Church of England home.

The story is set not in medieval Europe but in a sunny corner of NSW at a time when other Australians were listening to John Farnham singing Sadie (The Cleaning Lady) or INXS belting out Don't Change.

Through a labyrinthine trail of documents and evidence from seemingly good-hearted professional people who work for the Anglican Church, those attending the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are piecing the terrible tale together.

The commission sitting in Sydney is examining how the Anglican Diocese of Grafton handled complaints of extreme abuse from former residents of the North Coast Children's Home in Lismore. Up to 200 children passed through the home from the late 1940s to early 1980s.

Part of the unfolding story is why the diocese took a hard line dealing with and compensating victims.

Like all compelling stories, there are heroes and villains.

So far, one hero is likely to be Richard "Tommy" Campion, a 67-year-old former resident.

He brought the shocking story to the world and the fight to the steps of the Brisbane Cathedral, presided over by Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, also primate of the Anglican Church in Australia.

Another hero appears to be Simon Harrison, who as Campion's solicitor tried to negotiate with the Grafton Diocese on behalf of more than 40 psychologically and physically battered people who had been at Lismore.

During negotiations Harrison said he experienced disrespectful machismo posturing by then registrar at Grafton, the Reverend Pat Comben.

"The orphanage boy and Celt in me wanted to kick the chair from under him," he said.

The villains appear to be the Grafton Diocese as it was run by now retired Bishop Keith Slater, Rev Comben and of course the broader church.

But this is not a fable with good guys and bad guys - it is reality with complex people and complex motives driven by the personal and the institutional.

First you have a church that can trace its cultural roots to 15th century Europe and a reformation that centralised individual responsibility.

As commission chair Justice Peter McClellan remarked during the hearings, when the autonomous nature of each bishopric in the Anglican Church was stressed, the public would be forgiven for interpreting the title Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia to mean that power rested there.

However Dr Aspinall could not veto or compel Grafton to do the right thing but it is emerging that the Archbishop persistently counselled Bishop Slater that his approach needed to change.

In the end Slater was encouraged to leave and, as documents in the labyrinth show, he asked Aspinall if he was being asked to be the "fall guy".

He was told in no uncertain terms that, as bishop of the diocese, responsibility for the debacle was his.

All Tommy Campion and his solicitor knew was that the Grafton offer in compensation was paltry, about $10,000 for each claimant. Yet people, still suffering horribly, were coming forward and being told to go away.

There was, however, a major problem - the diocese was in debt to the tune of $12 million and that too was a bishop's responsibility.

In the true spirit of capitalism his Protestant community would have expected to be repaid the unsecured loan from their investment fund used to build a private girls' school that now could not pay its way.

Paying down the multimillion dollar debt was a diocesan priority. The moral Christian imperative to heal and help got shoved down the list.

In the polished pine and gloss-grey commission hearing room at Macquarie Tower in Sydney's CBD there are screens along the walls and on the benches for legal counsels, witnesses and the commissioners.

In these hi-tech surroundings, statements from witnesses are read. CN, who was at Lismore in the 60s, was raped three times by older boys at the home.

She remembered being told she was a dirty little heathen and she was filthy and that God did not love her.

"It all came together and I just felt I was worthless," she said as she told of unhappiness in her marriage and attempted suicide.

CN recalled hearing children screaming through the office door of Matron Jean O'Neill and seeing bruises and welts on them after they were beaten.

The difficulty of any future normal life for children who were long-term residents at the home is a recurring theme at the hearings.

CB, who was at the home from 1976 to the end of 1980, told how he ended up living on the streets and became a heavy drinker.

He would have been about seven when he ran away from the home with another boy and reported the abuse to local police. They were returned to the home. "I was severely beaten after that."

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