The royal commission into child sex abuse has been told gut-wrenching stories of sexual and physical abuse that allegedly occurred at Salvation Army boys’ homes in the 1950s and 1960s.
They say they were sexually abused at boys’ homes run by the Salvation Army. And when they tried to run away, they were beaten or locked in cages on a veranda for up to nine days. When they were let out, some say they were raped again.
Simeon Beckett, counsel assisting the royal commission, started today’s hearing by running through some allegations of sexual abuse, which were intertwined with horrific allegations of violent punishments at the hands of Salvos’ staff.
Beckett said the five alleged perpetrators had worked together or succeeded each other in their posts; most were moved between the four boys’ homes. He said key questions for the commission included whether the homes’ managers had sought to frustrate claims of sexual abuse or impede investigations; whether the alleged perpetrators were transferred to new homes once allegations had been made; and whether the Salvos took claims of sexual abuse seriously.
Beckett warned those at the Sydney hearing that the claims to be raised were “at the severe end of sexual abuse considered by the royal commission”, and the evidence of corporal punishment was “likely to be shocking”.
Beckett described the case of one witness who ran away from one home, was brought back by the police, and claims he was then punished by Major Victor Bennett, a senior figure at the home, who ran a hose up his anus. The witness reported the abuse and was locked in a cage as punishment, then allegedly raped when he was let out. Another witness said he had been raped by Bennett (who has since died). Witnesses have told the royal commission they did not complain to other staff because they would not be believed. Some complained to police but were returned to the home and beaten.
Beckett said Bennett had worked at all four Salvos’ homes in question. He said the royal commission would hear that Bennett had never been disciplined, reported to a government department or faced criminal charges as a result of the alleged sexual abuse.
Beckett also talked about the case of an alleged perpetrator who is still alive. Beckett said one witness claimed the man had sexually and physically abused him, then said he would “beat the life out of him” if he told anyone.
Evidence is due to be presented that the man allegedly dislocated the shoulder of a boy during a physical punishment in which he was whipping a boy’s genitals, then refused to allow concerned staff members to seek help for the boy, instead forcing the arm back into its socket himself. The concerned staff members in question were allegedly dismissed.
Beckett said it’s understood that the man refutes the claims of sexual abuse.
Beckett described punishments at the boys’ homes, all four of which have closed. He said boys had been punched with closed fists, thrown on the ground with force, and hit with straps until welts formed. One had detergent poured down his throat, another had to clean a toilet with a toothbrush, a third was forced to eat his own vomit. Boys who cried for their parents after lights out were flogged.
The picture painted by Beckett was that the Salvos’ HQ did not heavily intervene to check the alleged crimes and protect the boys. In at least one case, where claims were raised at the time, evidence was presented that the Salvos’ HQ attempted to minimise publicity, believing it was better if matters were not raised with police, and made efforts to find new employment within the Salvos for the alleged perpetrator.
The royal commission heard there had been 157 claims against the Salvos in its eastern division (which includes NSW and Queensland). The commission will go on to hear from 13 witnesses from the boys’ homes, and from the Salvation Army. The hearings are expected to last almost two weeks.
The royal commission is looking into sexual abuse of children at a range of Australian institutions. It has already looked at allegations surrounding Scouts Australia, the YMCA, an Anglican children’s home, and the Catholic Church’s “Towards Healing” process. The Salvos is the fifth case study.
The Salvation Army is yet to speak at the royal commission, but in 2010 it gave a formal and public apology to children abused in its care up to the 1990s. Salvation Army Commissioner James Condon has described the sexual abuse as a “failure of the greatest magnitude”.
The sexual abuse at the Salvos’ boys’ homes has been investigated by previous state and federal authorities. The royal commission will focus on how the Salvation Army responded to the claims and dealt with the alleged perpetrators.
The boys’ homes in question are the Alkira Home at Indooroopilly, Queensland; the Riverview Training Farm in Queensland; the Bexley Boys’ Home in NSW; and the Gill Memorial Home in Goulburn, New South Wales. Boys were sent to these homes for various reasons, including that they had been abandoned by their parents, or had committed offences.