The shameful secret of Britain's lost children: Brother Keaney's brutal attack

Mary Braid
Monday 12 July 1993 23:02

JOHN HENNESSEY spent eight years at Boys Town Bindoon, a Catholic home run by the Christian Brothers in the the outback of Western Australia. He says Bindoon blighted his entire life.

'I have always found relationships difficult,' said Mr Hennessey, 55, a former mayor of a Sydney suburb, sent from a Bristol orphanage to Australia in the late Forties. 'I have never married and my greatest regret is that I have no children. Bindoon had a terrible effect on the boys who lived there. Some have since committed suicide. Many have broken marriages. Emotionally, most are a mess.'

At Bindoon, hundreds of children, some as young as eight, slaved from dawn until dusk as building labourers, dynamiting rock from a quarry, loading it on trucks and later chiselling it to size. Mr Hennessey and other former pupils claim sexual and physical assaults by the Christian Brothers and older boys were commonplace, and that they often went hungry.

The only external sign of Mr Hennessey's painful experiences is his severe stutter. He remembers clearly the brutal attack by Brother Frank Keaney, the school's principal, which he believes caused his impediment.

'One day the hunger was so bad a group of us stole some grapes. Brother Keaney found out. The following morning, after we had been to church, he called out my name. He made me stand on a table in front of the school. Then he made me strip and flogged me with a walking stick. Keaney was 6ft tall and weighed about 18 stones. I was just a little boy.'

When Mr Hennessey says he remembers this 'as if it were yesterday', his voice quivers. He believes the hierarchy of the Catholic Church must take some blame for what went on at Bindoon, but that the British government is ultimately responsible for his suffering.

'When the Christian Brothers came to visit us at the orphanage in England, I remember how excited we were. They asked for volunteers to go to Australia and lots of little hands went up. Some of those that didn't were forced up.

'We were just children. Tens of thousands left the shores of England. The British just got rid of us. Why did the government and the church organisations not know what was going on? Perhaps they didn't care.'

Until a few years ago, Bindoon was famous for the beautiful Spanish-style buildings and the exemplary Christian charity of 'saintly' Brother Keaney, who died in 1954. To the boys, Keaney was a monster. They are appalled that a huge statue of 'Keaney the builder', with a hand on a boy's shoulder, still stands in the grounds of Keaney College, the private agricultural school that replaced the home. It was paid for by the Perth business community.

'It was the boys who built the place and it was dangerous work. Two boys died in construction accidents. They are buried in plain graves at the school, but Keaney's grave has a huge marble stone. The Brothers always said they were not here for earthly recognition.'

Until recently, the Catholic Church would not discuss the allegations about Bindoon. Lately, it has seemed more willing at least to accept that the regime was far from satisfactory. For Mr Hennessey that is not enough.

A few weeks ago, the Child Migrants Trust in Melbourne located Mr Hennessey's birth certificate. It showed he was four years older than previously thought and he was born in Cheltenham, not Belfast as he had been told. The trust is currently trying to trace his relatives.

'I have felt empty for so many years. I need to know who I am and I am confident that the trust will find that out. I cried in the wilderness for 40 years until Margaret Humphreys came along. Before, no one wanted to listen.'

(Photograph omitted)

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