A year ago Ernie’s mother saw a media report about sexual abuse in the Salvation Army boy’s home in Sydney where he had spent some time as a child. She asked him if anything had ever happened to him there.
When he answered ‘yes’, it was the first time he had ever disclosed these experiences to anyone. He couldn’t tell her the full details as ‘she’s old, I didn’t want to stress her’, but she suggested ‘I should tell me story to the Commission’.
It was the mid-1960s, and Ernie was around seven years old, when he and his brother were sent to the home by his mother for a couple of years. She had divorced his father, who had ‘done some bad things’ to her and been sent to jail, and she was unable to care for them. ‘We just didn’t understand, we thought we’d done something wrong, why we were there.’
Early on, a Salvation Army officer took Ernie into a storage room and masturbated in front of him. ‘Before I knew it he was doing something to himself, which I didn’t understand what he was doing. The door was shut. It was only later I realised what he was doing – he was masturbating in front of me, making me watch. I didn’t know if it was good or bad, I didn’t know what was going on.’
Punishments at the home were harsh, and dealt out by the major who ran the facility. During one particularly vicious beating, Ernie was caned so hard on his hands that they turned blue and he could not hold his pen at school.
The boys were always hungry, and would steal food from the kitchen. Ernie got caught once, and was caned and beaten.
They were also made to shower naked in front of each other. An officer would inspect them to check that they had washed properly, which made Ernie uncomfortable.
Twice when Ernie was asleep in the dormitory, a man came in and sexually abused him in his bed.
‘I sort of roused in my sleep, it was dark ... There was a person standing over me, touching me under the blankets. I was half-asleep ... When I sort of woke, he walked away quickly. I didn’t think much more of it ...
‘Then a couple of nights later it happened again. This time I sort of sat up, he really took off quick.’
The second time Ernie caught a glimpse of the man, and ‘is 95 percent sure’ it was the major.
After these incidents he became frightened to go to the toilet, which was downstairs. ‘I started to wet the bed, because I was scared to get out ... I become a bed wetter, I had no previous history of doing that. So once you wet the bed, the next morning you were paraded before the rest of the kids with your wet sheets.’
Ernie’s marriage broke up a few years ago, without him ever telling his wife about the abuse. He is considering applying for compensation from the Salvation Army for the damage his time in their care caused him.
‘I would like maybe something for the suffering. I’ve got to live with this. It’s not going to go away ... I’ve got nothing against the Salvation Army today. At the end of the day, I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. And there’s good and bad in every institution I suppose.’