Neerkol Orphanage was a sad place for State wards from the moment it was established in 1885.
The orphanage was built to accommodate children transferred from St Joseph’s Orphanage, Bucasia, in central Queensland.
More than 4,000 children passed through from 1885 until the orphanage’s closure in 1978.
The children who lived at Neerkol were often humiliated, beaten and forced into manual labour. The Sisters of Mercy forced bed-wetting children to stand with soiled sheets draped over their heads, and children who tried to escape were flogged with horsewhips.
Mary Adams lived at Neerkol as a child. She told the Child Abuse Royal Commission that she was once beaten so hard with a skipping rope she struggled to walk for days.
However, the children weren’t just subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Residents of the orphanage were also raped, harassed and abused by the parish priests.
One of the worst offenders was Father Reginald Durham
Durham lived at Neerkol and served as the orphanage chaplain as well as the local parish priest.
In the Royal Commission’s investigation of Neerkol, a 67-year-old woman revealed Durham raped her more than 100 times from the age of 11-years-old. Durham would fondle her breasts, force her to masturbate him and penetrated her with random objects.
“I felt so powerless, so robotic. He had so much power over me. I believed that I did not have choices. It was almost like being enslaved,” she told the commissioners.
Each time this occurred, the girl was forced to confess her sins.
“After each time I was sexually abused, I had to go to confession to him and confess my sin of impurity.”
“He would say, ‘are you sorry for your sin, my child?’ and I would reply ‘yes Father’.”
Durham would then give her absolution.
When she told other priests (including Bishop Brian Heenan) about the abuse, they were dismissive. They didn’t believe her.
She still suffers from nightmares and has sometimes thought about ending her life.
“I have spent the majority of my life struggling with the impact of sexual abuse that began when I was just a little girl of 11,” she said.
“I have spent much of my life believing I was lower than a snake’s belly.”
Neerkol closed in 1978.
After several former residents came forward, Bishop Heenan described the claims as “scandalous”
In 1993, several former residents of the orphanage reported the sexual abuse to the church and the Queensland Police. Criminal proceedings followed – in 1997, Queensland Police charged Durham with 40 sexual offences involving five former residents of Neerkol and a member of the parish where Durham served.
During the investigation, Bishop Heenan denied the victims’ claims of sexual abuse and mistreatment at Neerkol. In a letter that was circulated throughout the local parishes, Heenan described the claims as “scandalous”.
“Over recent weeks, scurrilous allegations have been made against the Sisters and the priests, in the form of claims of physical and sexual abuse,” Heenan wrote.
“Slanderous statements have been made about the conduct of the orphanage, the conditions that prevailed there, and in general about the care that was given to the children.”
“I will not remain silent while the immeasurable benefit that has come to many children through the dedication of the Sisters, is destroyed by sensationally written media articles or TV programs, which do not speak the truth.”
“St Joseph’s Orphanage will live on with its fine reputation in spite of what has been published.”
In 1999, Durham pleaded guilty to six counts of indecently dealing with a former resident of Neerkol. All other charges were discontinued and Durham spent 18 months in prison.
Bishop Heenan was forced to apologise to the victims of Durham.
“I regret having expressed my reaction the way I did – I recognise now that they were not accurate,” Heenan said.
18 former residents shared their horrific experiences with the Royal Commission
In 2015, 18 former residents of Neerkol shared their experiences with the Royal Commission. Around 13 were victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse administered by the nuns, priests and social workers.
Multiple victims spoke about Durham (now deceased).
The Royal Commission was able to expose Neerkol Orphanage for what it was: a house of horrors. Durham – along with the nuns and other priests – abused hundreds of children over the years.