When the pain hurts like charity

Cold as charity is a term that’s uncomfortably familiar to many people who have a new Geelong sanctuary for their lost and stolen childhoods.

It’s hard to imagine just how chilling that charity was for orphans abandoned by destitute, deceased or disappearing parents and stab-passed into the tender cruelties of church, government or community so-called ‘care’.

Numerous orphanages and foster homes were witheringly censured by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for their appalling failure to ‘care’ for the highly vulnerable innocents in their charge. Way, way too many children were irreversibly scarred by the physical, sexual and mental assault they faced. By the constant belittling, forced labour and bitter discrimination.

Brutality was an everyday menace for them. This was underscored by a persona non gratis status. Family contacts and details were deliberately withheld by authorities. Lies and fabrications tarnished their understanding of identity and self.

Today those children are old. Many can’t bear to recall their childhood. Many hide it from others. Others again, however, have found a solace of sorts in the company of fellow survivors. Geelong’s recently launched Australian Orphanage Museum, just out of town along Ryrie St, is a crucial, long-awaited facility for these people. It is a remarkable facility and a sobering reminder of the institutionalised barbarism visited on thousands of defenceless children across the country over generations.

The museum has been created by CLAN, the Care Leavers of Australasia Network – led by Geelong’s indomitable Leonie Sheedy – and features rare memorabilia from orphanages and homes where those children were abused.

It’s not a pretty story. The scars still sting for many of the survivors CLAN supports. The museum is a very real focal point for these survivors, one that acknowledges and corroborates their often untold, and for far too long, unrecognised, stories.

Those stories aren’t pretty either. The rapes and bashings often spawned angry adults only too quick to lash out and all too often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Others have lived lives chewed up by PTSD, deep mental health issues, unemployment, homelessness and poverty.

One woman told me she was raped from age seven and through her teens, several times a week, while in ‘care’. She said she punched herself in the stomach to stop any baby from growing. All the while, files have since revealed, her father was trying to get her out of care but the authorities wouldn’t agree.

“It was just disgraceful. The government was our guardian but there was no guardianship,” she said.

Another told me of multiple rapes and regular bashings, pregnant at 13, jail at 14, four kids by 20, two of whom have since died – one by suicide after the car he was driving crashed and his brother died – as well as a grandchild lost in a crash.

For all their suffering, these people don’t want to be known as whingers. They toughed it out as kids, they’ve done so as adults too. But they do want to be acknowledged. And Redress would be good, too. Might pay for their funerals, if government can ever get its act together.

As for charity, well you know where you can shove that – especially the tax-exempt charitable status still given to institutions that oversaw their abuse.

This article was published in the Geelong Advertiser 30 May 2023.

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