Violence was part of daily life in the Victorian Salvation Army boys’ home where Ernest was sent at the age of 13 in the late 1950s.
‘I ended up there because of property offences. My mother went to hospital; unfortunately I ended up in the wrong crowd, and was made a ward of the state.’
The boys quickly learned that absolute obedience was required if a beating was to be avoided. So when Envoy Peterson told Ernest and another boy to report outside his room after Sunday school, both boys were quick to obey.
‘I went into Peterson’s room first, and he said it was a strip search. He told me to bend over the bed, the next thing I know he’s on top of me pelvic thrusting. I started screaming, and was lucky the other boy walked in and yelled out. I just picked up me clothes and went straight round to the matron.’
Ernest told the Commissioner that when he explained to the matron what had happened, she immediately punished him.
‘She got a ruler and she went to work on my knuckles, and she kept on going on them. I’m saying to her, check the story, but she said, “I don’t want you telling lies about an officer who’s been working here for so many years”.’
A couple of days later, Ernest said he reported the envoy’s assault to the major in charge of his section of the home.
‘My mother never raised no fools; if I had of known I was going to cop it, I wouldn’t have complained, I would’ve kept me mouth shut. I told him the story and he said, “It’s all lies, it never happened”. I got a real good belting.’
On her next visit, Ernest told his mother what had happened, and believes she rang the welfare department only to be told she had to take the matter up with home authorities. He later heard the matron had told his mother that she had been present when the strip search took place, and that nothing had happened.
Desperate to escape, Ernest ran away and ‘surrendered’ himself to another boys’ home, hoping to see a doctor.
‘I wanted the doctor to see the bruises, then I thought I’d be safe; but they took me straight back to the Salvation Army home. Boy, did I cop it from the headmaster, he gave me a good old thrashing with a cane. I had even more bruises all over me.’
During the 12 months Ernest spent at the facility, he said, he often witnessed Peterson coming into the dormitory late at night with hot chips.
‘His excuse was he was supposed to be getting bedwetters up to facilitate them going to the toilet. I’d see him go to somebody’s bed, and play with the derriere and the groin area and other parts. I escaped his attentions because I yelled if he came anywhere near me.
'When I left, I was crying my eyes out and I told my mum, “You don’t know what’s going to happen to those blokes there, I do”.’
Ernest said that for the next 12 years he turned to criminal activity but eventually ‘woke up’. He has been married twice, and moved to the bush and for some years lived a reclusive lifestyle.
Ernest has never reported the sexual or physical abuse to police.
‘I suffer nightmares, I used to be a heavy drinker. I’ve got a bad heart, have had prostate cancer, but I’ve got a pretty strong constitution and sort of manage. But what I seen at that home, I will never forget.’