Apology at last for lives scarred forever
THE eyes told you all you needed to know and suggested much that you might hope never to know.
Pools of pain. Repositories of images that would not - never will - go away. Here was a great hall of adult lives damaged and defined by loveless childhoods.
So many heads bowed. So many handkerchiefs held to mouths. An old man's knee jiggled uncontrollably, seeking to relieve anxiety that may never ease. Hands reached out to pat heaving shoulders. Women clutched children the way they might have wished to have been held, just once.
Here and there, men and women held aloft old pictures. Of mothers, sisters, brothers; whole family groups torn apart and lost.
And yet, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull walked on to the stage of the Great Hall of Parliament House, scores of those same hurting people stood and applauded, cheering and whistling.
Here were the Forgotten Australians, rediscovered.
Here were the representatives of multitudes who never thought anyone would believe them, told now by the nation's leaders that what happened to them had to be known, believed and acknowledged by all.
''We come together today to deal with an ugly chapter in our nation's history,'' Mr Rudd said. ''And we come together today to offer our nation's apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without your consent, that we are sorry.''
He listed an abyss of sins perpetrated in the name of a nation's charity: physical suffering, emotional starvation and ''the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care''.
''We look back with shame that so many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and with nobody, absolutely nobody, to whom to turn.''
And, yes, ''today, and from this day forward, it is my hope that you will be called the Remembered Australians''.
About 500,000 Australian children were brought up in orphanages, foster homes and other institutions between the 1930s and the 1970s. Another 7000 mainly British children were sent to Australia, many to become little more than slave labour, told that their parents were dead, though often that was not true.
The numbers of those physically, sexually and emotionally abused can hardly be estimated, though to listen to the stories of those who crowded Parliament and its lawns yesterday left no doubt that abuse was, in many institutions, systematic. There were reunions from long-gone orphanages and their former residents shared the memories, naming vicious staff and their special forms of sadism.
Such sadism. A man who wanted The Age to know his full name - John Stephen Hughes - wore a shirt emblazoned with Menzies Boys Home, Frankston (''It was on Olivers Hill, but we called it Oliver Twist's Hill,'' he said). When he arrived, aged three, his legs were in calipers. His foster mother had smashed them, he said, held his face over an open gas flame and broken his skull with a child's swing.
The boys' home superintendent took a dislike to the boy (''I suppose it was because I was disfigured''), flogged him with a garden hose and forced him to sit away from the other boys. Mr Hughes, 55, now happily married with a son and a daughter (''John Boy and Leah,'' he says proudly), still remembers the silver ring on the superintendent's finger when he punched him.
''But listening to the stories of others last night,'' he said, shaking his head, ''Well, I thought I had it tough, but they got worse treatment. Some of the poor women …''
Malcolm Turnbull broke down as he spoke of Pippa Corbett, eight years old when she was placed in Scarba House, Bondi. Ms Corbett's brother was just two months old, and was put into a separate area from his two sisters.
''I could only watch him from behind a glass window lying in a cot,'' Mr Turnbull quoted from a letter written by Ms Corbett. ''He was never held or picked up and I used to yell, 'Give me my brother,' constantly and they belted me with a switch …''
Mr Turnbull - whose mother abandoned his family when he was eight, though he did not mention it - choked on Ms Corbett's words, and had to compose himself before continuing.
''For those who have suffered decades of grief, haunted by your childhood - emotionally paralysed and unable to move forward, today I hope you can take the first step forward because you are not to blame,'' he said. ''It was governments, churches and charities that failed you …''
And dozens of voices from the audience cried: ''We know!''
''I thought Mr Turnbull's speech came from the heart,'' said a woman who wished only to be known as Minnie, once a child shipped from England to a miserable life in Australia.
And did she think there would be a healing from the apology? ''I just think it was kind of Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull. It won't change anyone's life. What has happened can't be changed. My real anger is against my father who gave me up for the sort of life I had to bear.''