Boys from Victorian orphanages who later ended in up prison said that was not nearly as bad as the boys' homes, the state inquiry into how the churches handled sex abuse heard on Monday.
It was another litany of horror at the inquiry as the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) gave evidence of repeated and systematic rapes over years, physical and psychological abuse amounting to torture, and a callous indifference by police and authorities, whether church or state.
Leonie Sheedy, chief executive of CLAN – which represents people raised in homes run by the state, churches and charities – told the inquiry that in a sample she took of 18 years 1352 children absconded from religious and non-government homes and 1877 fled state institutions.
"A great number were running away from child rape, and sexual and other criminal assaults. What did the police do? They simply returned them to their abusers. They did not ask why the children were running away or inquire into their well-being," Ms Sheedy said.
"The boys who ran away from homes and ended up in prison have told me over and over again that prison was much better than the boys' homes."
CLAN spokesman Frank Golding said the processes of dealing with child abuse had not improved at all in the last 100 years.
He said the responses of institutions over thousands of cases followed a similar pattern. This was disbelief ("you can't take the word of a child over the word of an adult"), denial, blaming the victim ("the girl was wicked and used her seductive charms against the priest") and blaming the parents ("the children come from immoral families, what else could you expect?").
There were also cover-ups and collusion, with children who complained often viciously beaten in front of other children as a deterrent against future complaints. There was systemic blindness because crimes were rarely recorded, he said.
Right up to the present, institutions were unco-operative or even, as with the Salvation Army in Victoria, overtly hostile, usually telling victims records had been lost, Mr Golding said. This not only reduced the chances of legal action but also finding and reuniting people with lost family members.
CLAN gave many examples of abuse. One girl who explained that she was molested by a holiday host was beaten and told she was "a dirty, filthy, dishonest child. This confused me greatly".
Another told a nun she did not want to go to the elderly couple she spent weekends with as the man touched her private parts. "Her answer was to beat and kick me, constantly saying I was the spawn of the devil, I was evil and a temptress of man, then the nuns made me go anyway where he only did it to me again."
A former ward of the St Vincent De Paul boys' orphanage said it was obvious employees knew of the abuse occurring. He was asked by one Brother to find something under the blankets, which was a second Brother naked from the waist down. "After it [the abuse] was over he put a $10 note in my hand and told me to come back again."
Another ward at the same orphanage reported that a Brother dug his thumb into the victim's throat before abusing him. The ward sneaked out of the orphanage and complained to the police. "A detective ... came into the cell and slapped me a number of times before punching me in the stomach, and he told me not to bother coming to the police station with such cock-and-bull stories."
Mr Golding said the cycle was continuing today. "Why are we not learning from the mistakes of the past? Is it because the children of policy-makers and law-makers are not involved?"
He said the Catholic Church should not be allowed to deal with its own abuse complaints. "They should not be judge and jury when they have so much to lose in payments and compensation."