Royal Commission hears of cruel, barbaric hell

CRUEL barbaric and utter hell is how child abuse victim Richard "Tommy" Campion has described the conditions children were forced to live in at Lismore's North Coast Children's Home.

Eight years after he first broke his silence about the torment he and many others were subjected to under the watch of the Anglican Church, the now 66-year-old has told his story to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The whistleblower was the first witness to take the stand at Monday's public inquiry, which is looking at how the Anglican Diocese of Grafton responded to claims of child sexual abuse at the home and it's handling of a group claim.

With a cracked voice, Mr Campion painted a confronting picture of a dark place where children as young as toddlers suffered whippings and other physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a "sadistic matron" and two "wicked" reverends who had "no regard for human life, let alone the wellbeing of a child".

Stopping to compose himself on several occasions, Mr Campion spoke about how one reverend would flog the children with the buckle side of his belt until they were screaming.

Beltings were dished out, he said, for running too fast, not eating all their food and not making the bed.

Some were forced to go into a yard, take a twig off a tree and bring it back to the matron, knowing they would be beaten with it.

Children who wet the bed were "grabbed by throat, the ear or hair and dragged from the bed" before their soiled sheets were wrapped around their heads.

They were then paraded around the dormitory "for the other children to be taught a lesson" and sent down to the laundry where they would hand wash their sheets in a tub.

Mr Campion struggled as he described how some children were too little to even reach the tub and other children had to lift them up.

Two topics proved almost too much for Mr Campion to cross.

He shed tears as he recounted a day when, at just 10 years of age, he watched as his sister was taken away and placed with a family.

He said he remembered a family "picking her out of a line-up" and saying "that's a nice girl ...we'll take her".

A little later the family took Mr Campion in too but sent him back because "they thought I was raised by wild animals ... that I was a nasty boy".

It was another eight years before he saw his sister again.

Mr Campion then told the inquiry about a time in the winter when he and some of "the lads" was lured across the road to the minister's residence to drink hot Milo and eat warm crumpets with honey.

It was supposed to be a bit of "time out" but, while the other boys were in one room, Mr Campion was abused by a reverend.

He said wouldn't "go into that" out of fear he would spend the rest of the day crying.

The commission heard Mr Campion had gone on to become a photographer at Lismore's Northern Star newspaper before continuing to have a successful career in the media industry.

He decided to unload his grief in a five-page letter to the Anglican diocese after the memories became too much in 2005.

An initial response from the Grafton Diocese expressed revulsion and deep sympathy for what had occurred and Mr Campion was offered counselling and compensation.

But in the years that followed, a class action against the Church allegedly led to the diocese distancing itself from the role it played in the home.

Mr Campion and his sister later refused compensation, on the grounds the church was "lying".

He is expected to return to the witness stand on Tuesday along with four former executives of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton hierarchy including former bishop Keith Slater.

In a statement released ahead of the hearings, a spokesperson for the diocese reaffirmed its support for the royal commission and stressed that "whatever shortcomings and failures there may have been dealing with these issues in the past, we have made major changes in attitude, protocol and response".

The statement said the diocese was now totally committed to facing its responsibilities and introducing a "new and wholly appropriate attitude and response to any form of abuse experienced by persons for whom we have responsibility and duty of care."

The public hearings, which are being held in Sydney, are expected to run for at least another week.