John yearned for mum amid abuse

John Hennessey is 78 years old but if you listened to his words yesterday, all you could see was a frightened and lonely young boy, starved of love.

After choosing to take the oath on the Bible instead of an affirmation - he still believes in God - Mr Hennessey paused before starting his testimony, holding a picture of his late mother, May.

"I brought my mother with me," he said.

From the 18th floor of a Perth skyscraper, the first witness at the royal commission took a packed public gallery on a harrowing journey from an illegitimate birth, to an early childhood in a home run by kindly nuns, to a harsh institution in WA to rival any tale by Charles Dickens.

Believing he was an orphan, unaware that his Irish mother had been told he was dead, 11-year-old John boarded a ship in Britain for a land he'd been told was full of fruit and kangaroos.

"We left with great fanfare (accompanied by) the nuns who were like our mothers," he said. "They gave us a sense of security because after all we didn't have any others.

"The food on the ship was the best food I'd ever had. It was a hot summer's day when we arrived, there was a band to greet us."

Quickly, it changed. The nuns were replaced by the Christian Brothers, who split the children up to go to different institutions.

"I can still hear the screams of the kids being separated," he said. "It hit me: there was something wrong here. The brothers had taken control, the nuns were gone and I had no one to turn to."




They were herded into trucks in their woollen English suits, given no hats or water and taken to the harsh expanses of Bindoon, 85km from Perth.

There young John first saw the imposing figure of Irish brother Paul Keaney, who was to become an abusive, frightening, controlling and confusing figure to dominate the rest of his life.

The boys were stripped naked in the courtyard, given basic food and clothing, no shoes and little education.

"I realised there was no kangaroos, no fruit," Mr Hennessey said.

"I felt betrayed. There was no love at Bindoon. I believed the brothers felt we were children of the Devil. We were not children of God because we were born out of wedlock. We were not normal children."

The boys were beaten frequently and ferociously with leather straps modified to cause extra pain.

When John was 12, he was beaten to a pulp by Keaney for stealing grapes. He has spoken with a stutter ever since.

"I could not believe that a man I saw as a father could do this. He had broken my world. He had broken me."

He named half a dozen brothers he testified had sexually abused him or other children.

But it was Keaney who loomed large, grooming the boy and showing him love in return for sexual favours.

"Brother Keaney would often cuddle me and tell me that I was a very good boy. Somehow I convinced myself he felt something special for me.

"I became a sexual target for many other older boys and brothers. If there was no violence involved, I did not see it as abuse."

The confused boy witnessed the high standing of Keaney, pouring wine for guests who visited Bindoon. "No matter what we said about him, no one would believe us. Brother Keaney would go to Mass in the morning, go to Communion then go out and flog little kids."

When he left Bindoon, Mr Hennessey left WA "to take the shackles off" because "the brothers were very powerful in WA".

"Judges and politicians were taught by the brothers. They were all well connected," he said.

Mr Hennessey has never married and tearfully told the commission there were no "little Hennesseys" because of the scars he carried.

In a lifetime of yearning for the love of his mother, he found her after 47 years. She lived another six. "I never told her of my experience," he said. "I did not want to hurt her any more.

"My mother never had any other living children. She had three children stillborn."

His life has been lonely but dedicated to community service and he was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 1999.

"I did not want to be a nobody," he said. "I have picked myself up out of the gutter and tried to serve the community.

"Everything I have done, I have done it on behalf of my mother. I take her picture everywhere. She is the love of my life."