In the mid-1950s, when Ernest was nine, his parents split up and he and his mother went to Melbourne to stay with her older sister. The house was overcrowded, so his mother decided to move to Sydney to start afresh. Family members suggested that she place Ernest in the ‘very nice home nearby’, run by the Salvation Army.
Ernest was taken to the home on the pretext of just having a look at the place, to see if he liked it. When he saw his uncle sneaking his suitcase in, and his grandmother crying as she left, ‘I realised then I was going to be left’. He lived there for the next two years, going from a warm, loving family environment to one of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Boys who wet their beds were put in a separate dormitory, and each morning they were paraded in front of the other boys and caned. Ernest also remembers seeing boys being badly beaten for running away. Others were forced to stand for long periods in the quadrangle, or to sit with a paper bag over their heads.
The boys lived in fear, but often had no idea of the things that would get them into trouble. ‘When you’ve been caned for things you don’t believe you should have been caned for, or whipped … hob nails … the strap marks … the studs where they’d gone in, and that drew the blood … to this day I can’t believe people would do that to somebody, and that sort of made it very hard.’
Having to compete with bigger boys for the food placed on the tables, Ernest was always hungry. ‘Kids would dive in, and there was no more left. That was it, finished, end of story. So you were always looking for food, always hoping that there’d be something left over.’ Later, when he had his own family, Ernest insisted that everyone eat everything off their plates. ‘At my table no food will ever get thrown out.’
Mr Phillips was not a Salvation Army officer, but appeared to be some kind of supervisor, whose job it was to ‘keep an eye on the boys’. One morning one of the house maids accused Ernest of having wet his bed. He told her he didn’t and said ‘Mr Phillips was in bed with me and he knows the bed wasn’t wet’. Ernest thought he was clarifying the situation, but when he saw the look on the woman’s face he thought, ‘Well, what have I said?’
There were two other staff members who Ernest remembers as being ‘cruel people’ and just after the incident with the house maid, he saw one of them in a rage, beating some boys. He stopped when he saw Ernest and called out ‘I need to speak to you, you lying little bastard’. He then dragged Ernest into the bathroom, gave him a hiding, and washed his mouth out with soap. While doing this, he broke Ernest’s front tooth.
Mr Phillips came into Ernest’s bed on numerous occasions. He would climb in and cuddle up to him. Ernest had been used to cuddling up with his grandmother and parents at home, so initially it was natural for him to be looking for the same kind of comfort.
Ernest remembers Mr Phillips ‘would give me a little glass of something to drink’. Ernest has never been a drinker, so it was only when was given a small drink of whiskey years later, ‘all of a sudden I realised “That’s the smell of what Phillips used to give”’. In hindsight, it seems that Mr Phillips used whiskey to drug Ernest and put him to sleep while he abused him.
Ernest told the Commissioner that when Mr Phillips came into his bed he would be fully clothed. When he woke up the next morning, he would only have his singlet on and ‘I’d be feeling sore … I knew something wasn’t right. I was only nine. But I’d never experienced anything along these lines, so it was … looking back it was some frightening stuff, to the point where … I’d, you know … try to avoid him and stay away’.
Later Ernest realised that on the nights Mr Phillips didn’t come to his bed, he would have been doing the same things with other boys. From the looks and comments he received from other boys, he knows he wasn’t the only one.
Ernest remembers Mr Phillips as being very hairy, ‘always needed a shave, so he’d want to kiss me and he was all whiskery … balding … and his body odour … If I smell a man today with that smell, my God, you know, my whole body just heaves’.
In the early 2010s Ernest attended a mediation with the Salvation Army. ‘It was like a fight. It was as though I wasn’t believed.’ He said he was ‘thinking that I’m going to get justice. There is no justice. Just us’.
Eventually, he received a payment of $45,000, but the whole process was ‘somewhat horrific’ and ‘opened up a bag of worms of stuff that I had forgotten about or put away’. It felt like he was once again ‘that little boy who was vulnerable and scared’ and that he was going to be punished again. He felt like he had been abused again, and wondered why he had gone through with it.
Ernest said he was glad to tell his story. ‘If it’s of benefit to somebody. If it benefits the children or those people who have been placed in institutions and been badly dealt with, that’s the whole purpose, my purpose of being here, and some recognition. For many years there was no opportunity for me to speak to anybody.’