Who will hang when it comes to WAs institutional abuse?
Anne Louise Brown
13th June 2012
Updated 13th June 2012
The last man to hang in Western Australia, Eric Cooke, was institutionalised in Fremantle Prison as a juvenile.
Ronald Ryan, the last man to hang in Victoria, was a ward of the state, sent to the Salesian Order's school for orphaned, wayward and neglected boys aged 11.
And Glen Sabre Valance, the last man hung in South Australia, spent his formative years in and out of state-run orphanages and boys' homes.
Coincidence? Perhaps not.
In Western Australia the dark reality of abuse committed in state, church and charity operated children's institutions is slowly bubbling to the surface.
And, it seems, the only way to heal the scars of the past is to hold a royal commission into what happened in these institutions now, for the future, so it never happens again.
Mick Hilder was aged between 13 and 14 when he was sexually abused by WA's most notorious paedophile, Dennis McKenna, at St Andrew's boarding hostel in Katanning.
Mr Hilder is not a killer, he is not a criminal, but what happened to him at Katanning has had a devastating effect on his life.
Aged 47, he says he's a survivor – just.
"The main thing is to get it out there and tell the community what happened. In turn that gets all the victims together as one, not just the Katanning victims, but victims from all the different institutions," Mr Hilder said.
"For me it came to a head when I was 24 and my wife and I went to a party. You see, after I was abused it was really hard to react in a measured way to anything because I hadn't spoken about what had happened.
"Anyway, I'd had a few beers and my wife went and had a dance with another bloke and I just couldn't handle it, so I went outside and ripped my wrists up and down a barbed-wire fence.
"After that I rang the police because I had to get out what happened – it was destroying me."
Mr Hilder said the impact abuse has had on others who went through a similar experiences at St Andrew's have been wide ranging.
Some have locked it up inside while it's killed others.
"There have been suicides as a result of what happened at Katanning – eight I know of. There's been a lot of self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse and crime," he said.
"It was only five years ago that I tried to kill myself again. I've tried a few times."
The anecdotal evidence from around Australia as to the impacts abusive institutionalisation can have on affected individuals is staggering.
The most poignant example is that of the Institution for Boys', which was located in the rural NSW town of Tamworth. Some have called it a breeding ground for killers.
During the 1960s, some of the country's most infamous murderers went through the brutal institution, where inmates were systematically tortured and beaten.
Inmates included Sydney underground identity Arthur Stanley 'Neddy' Smith, Whiskey Au Go Go bomber James 'Jimmy' Richard Finch and "Australia's Charles Manson", Archibald Beattie McCafferty.
In total, more than 35 violent deaths have been linked to former Tamworth inmates.
So what could be uncovered in WA?
Leonie Sheedy of the Care Leavers Australian Network says there's a "can of worms" about to be opened.
She, along with the state opposition and the Greens, are calling for a royal commission into state, religious and charity run institutions in WA.
"If there's no royal commission the victims will never receive justice and it's time for accountability," Ms Sheedy said.
"It's vital the perpetrators of institutional violence and sexual abuse that are still alive face the consequences of what they did. It's still as wrong to have abused a child 50 years ago as it was five years ago, five days ago or five minutes ago."
Ms Sheedy said many felt like "second-class citizens", and some turned to crime because when they left care they were expected to fend for themselves without support or an education.
"Children in institutional care were society's throw away children. There was nowhere to turn and if they tried to tell authorities about abuse they were called liars," she said.
"There's been no one there for institutionalised children. As adults, these people have been left to suck it up and deal with their feelings as best they can.
"If we're really serious about child abuse we need to find out what happened in WA, provide support to victims and, most importantly, learn from the past."