Imagine this. It is 1949. In small-town Australia, a young woman makes a decision that will change her life and – immeasurably – those of her two small children. Defeated by an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, far from the support of her own family, she leaves her toddlers in the one room they live in, and takes the train to a new life without them.
Their father, unable or unwilling to raise the children himself, delivers them to a local children’s home, run by the Anglican Church. Sometimes he comes to visit, but after a while stops. Four-year-old Suzanne and two-year-old Richard never see either of their parents again.
This is where you might want to shut your imagination down. What followed is the stuff of nightmares, unimaginable for those of us who grew up in warm, safe and loving homes. Suzanne and Richard, along with many of the other orphaned or abandoned children who lived in the home with them, were subjected to years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Punishment was meted out in the harshest ways; abuse was at the hands of the children’s home staff and of visiting clergy. The children’s lives were filled with fear, devoid of the tenderness, affection and care every child deserves.
When she was 12, Suzanne was sent to a foster home; her little brother was distraught at losing the only person who loved him. Eventually, the family decided to take him too and for a short time the siblings were reunited. But the family didn’t like “the boy” and sent him back to the children’s home. He did not see his sister again for eight years.
More years of abuse followed. There were escape attempts, with other boys, but they were always caught and dragged back to more punishment.
When he was 16, Richard was able to leave the “home”. As an adult, he reinvented himself and became one of Australia’s most flamboyant and successful news photographers: Tommy Campion.
Tommy is loved by everyone. He’s loud, brash, colourful, a clown, a character. He’s charismatic and funny. His photos filled the front pages of Australia’s leading newspapers and made their way – in some cases – around the world. He won awards, and the hearts of a string of beautiful women.
But under the laughs, there was always the pain. The scars on his back from whippings that broke the skin may have faded under the Queensland sunshine, but the scars in his heart and mind remained. In his late 50s, there came dark years, in which he struggled to come to terms with what he had suffered. The nights were worst, with the memories of the beatings, the cries of other children – and his inability to help them – haunting his dreams.
In 2005, he wrote to the Anglican Church, detailing what had happened to him, his sister and others in the children’s home. His pleas for help ignored, he advertised to find other children who had been in the same home, the Church of England North Coast Children’s Home in Lismore, New South Wales. Responses flooded in; he estimates about 200 children were victims of abuse in that home.
Resilience is something Tommy learned early in life, and it still serves him well. He is stubborn, angry, determined that the Anglican Church will be brought to account for the failure of its duty of care for the children in that “home”.
About two years ago, Tommy’s battle with the Anglican Church moved from letter-writing (about one a week for around eight years) to direct action. He established a website and last year began a relentless social media campaign on Facebook. But it was his one-man protest outside the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane that soon resulted in a meeting with the Anglican Primate, Archbishop Philip Aspinall.
There have been more meetings since then, and a continuing campaign – helped by his friends in the news media – that has seen his story widely told. Last month, the Bishop of Grafton (the diocese in which the children’s home was located), to whom Tommy had written hundreds of letters, resigned from his position, over his mishandling of abuse claims.
Today, Tommy is presenting his evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He’s wearing bright pink socks. Tommy’s not one for an understated look, and his favoured pink socks have become a symbol of his fight; his friends and supporters wear them to show solidarity. I’m wearing them too. Tommy is my dear friend, and as regular readers will know, many of his photographs have appeared on this blog.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced last November by the Australian government, to look into “how institutions with a responsibility for children have managed and responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.
It will make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices to prevent and better respond to child sexual abuse in institutions. This includes where the commissioners consider an organisation caring for a child is responsible for the abuse or for not responding appropriately, regardless of where or when the abuse took place.
For Tommy, the invitation to address the commissioners in a private hearing is a huge victory.
“For eight years, I battled the Anglican Church for this,” he says. “They admitted the church was associated with the home. That church clergy and staff abused 200 children. That the church had a moral responsibility to protect the children. They said no child should have been subjected to cruelty or abuse as I was. However, they would not admit the church had the duty of care. With all that (and much, much more), I want to speak to the Royal Commission and tell them of the sexual and physical abuse of children, and how the church for eight years used their cunning and lies to try and escape the truth.”
Tommy’s story is, sadly, one of many. There are many other institutions as guilty as the one he has been fighting for the truth. There are many other children – and adults who were once children – who are victims of abuse, struggling to live “normal” lives. There are many who did not survive. There are many heart-breaking stories that will be told to the Royal Commission.
But today is Tommy Campion’s day. He is telling his story for the umpteenth time, but the difference is that today he knows that it will make a difference. His listeners today are charged with making change. With using the power given to them by the government to try to ensure that no child should be violated or abused. And that those who breach their duty of care to children are finally held accountable.
Imagine this: a world where all children are safe and loved.