Chris James's story

‘We called it the starvation army’, Chris said. He was recalling the time he spent at a Salvation Army-run home for boys in Melbourne. Food would arrive in the kitchens already mildewed and off, he said. Boys were hungry much of the time.

Chris had been sent to the home when he was nine or 10, in the early 1960s. He’d spent much of his early life with his mother’s foster mother – his foster nan. When he was about eight he returned to live with his parents, who had moved into a housing commission home where they and their many children could be accommodated together. Quite quickly, Chris found himself labelled the troublemaker of the family.

‘Memories are vague. I don’t seem to remember much. But I know I stole some fruit and the police were called and my father told them to take me away.’

Chris was made a ward of the state and ended up in the boys’ home. He remained there for several years. The boys were given jobs to do and for a while his was running the machine that peeled potatoes, in a little shed a short distance from the kitchens.

‘My job was go to out there and put the potatoes into the potato peeler … Next thing I knew this person came in, shut the door behind and made me take my pants down.’

Chris’s most vivid recollection of the assault is the sperm that was left on his body and clothes afterwards. ‘I can still feel it’, he said.

His assailant was a Salvation Army worker, he believes. But he is not sure if the abuse happened once or multiple times, and cannot remember if the worker had approached him on other occasions, before the attack. ‘I’ve locked a lot away.’

In his early teens Chris returned to his parents’ home. But he wasn’t able to attend his local high school, and the one he was enrolled in was far away and difficult to get to. He stopped going and by the age of 14 and a half was spending much of his time in the pub. ‘I became an alcoholic at a young age’, he said.

Criminal activity followed, as Chris turned to minor theft to get the money to buy alcohol. At 15 he had his first stint in a juvenile justice institution – others followed, till eventually he found himself in prison. Though he experienced physical violence and deprivation in these places, he wasn’t sexually abused again.

In his 20s, Chris began turning his life around. He found work and developed a successful career. He married, and had children. In the late 1990s, one of his by-then adult children was killed, and this devastating loss proved too much for his and wife’s relationship. Their 30-year marriage came to an end, and so did Chris’s career, as depression and other mental health issues meant he could no longer work.

Chris had one good memory of the Salvation Army boys’ home, he said – playing sport. He was successful there as a cricketer and footballer and he carried that skill and enthusiasm into his adult life, playing sport in winter and summer. He also coached his children’s teams for many years, even though it took up a lot of time and that caused ructions with his wife. At that point he hadn’t disclosed his abuse to her so wasn’t able to explain that coaching was his way of making sure the kids were safe. ‘Not only were my boys safe, but they were all safe. I kept an eye on them all.’

Several years after his marriage ended he finally disclosed his abuse to his ex-wife. She told him he should seek compensation. He contacted a law firm in Melbourne and put the matter in their hands. Nine years later they got in touch with news of a $20,000 settlement. They suggested he seek more but Chris wasn’t interested – ‘I said “No thank you, I’ve had enough”’.

Chris has had psychiatric and counselling support over the years and had this advice: ‘I’ll tell anybody, if you’re going to see a psychiatrist or a counsellor, do not tell one lie. Because they can’t help you. Tell them everything. Irrespective of what it is, you must tell them everything.’ He has remarried, and lives in regional Victoria. He has told his second wife his story, and tried to explain himself to her.

‘There’s a lot of baggage that comes with me. For starters, I do not know how to love. Because I was abused as a child … We know nothing about love – yeah, we know nothing about it. My heart’s black … I was taught hatred from a very young age. I was taught not to trust.’

Chris believed the focus of the Commission should be in looking forwards, not to the past. ‘You can’t help me. You can’t help any of us that have been abused 40, 50, 60 years ago. There’s nothing you can do to help us. But surely there’s something you can do to help those little people.’

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