In the late 1950s Gabe was made a ward of the Queensland state after his mother was found to be neglecting her children. Gabe’s older sister was independent by then and his younger sister was taken in by their grandmother, but 11-year-old Gabe was sent to an Anglican boys’ home.
He was there less than a week before he experienced first-hand the violence of Superintendent, Harvey Douglas. ‘I got one hell of a hiding’, Gabe said. ‘And I decided that was no good to me so I ran away. I didn’t know where I was going. The police took me back and I got another belting so I decided not to run away again. I didn’t go to school for a week because of the bruising.’
Gabe told the Commissioner that he learnt quickly to ‘roll with the system or pay the penalty’. He had never encountered sexual abuse before, but it was common knowledge Douglas was abusing boys. ‘If you got summonsed to his room you knew what was going to happen. It happened to me on numerous occasions. It started off with fondling then went further. He did that to a lot of different boys.’
One day Gabe told the matron of the home that he was being sexually abused by Douglas, but she didn’t believe him. There wasn’t really anyone else to tell. His older sister visited when she could at the monthly allocated hour, but most times he was on his own.
‘I think it was a case of nobody would have believed you, and if you drew more attention to yourself you knew what the outcome was going to be. I don’t think any of us would have thought of going and making a complaint. That was home for us and there was nowhere else to be. We learnt to fall in with the systems.’
After three years Gabe was thrilled to hear he was being sent to a Salvation Army training farm. ‘I was over the moon. I was so excited because as a kid I’d heard so much about what the Salvation Army did for people, and I was always interested in farm animals. But boy I was only there about a week and I realised I’d jumped from the fat into the fire.’
On his arrival, he’d heard two older boys say the officers would be pleased to see ‘fresh meat’. Gabe didn’t know what they meant but found out quickly ‘what it was about’.
Captain Wilcox, in charge of the farm, was as bad as Douglas in using straps, fists and boots to beat boys up. Two other officers, Lieutenant Ryan and Captain Palin, regularly sexually and physically abused boys. Gabe said he managed to avoid some but not all of Palin’s abuse by refusing lures of lollies to go to his room. ‘He sort of touched me, but I was able to keep him at arm’s length.’
Ryan, he said, was a different story. ‘He was living with us, in a room at the end of the dormitory. He’d touch you in your bed but then take you to his room. Nobody ever tried to say no, because you knew what your punishment would be if you tried. Who would you complain to? You knew you just had to put up with it.’
When possible Gabe worked on neighbours’ farms in the surrounding area, but the placements were usually short-lived and he’d have to return to the Salvation Army farm. He told one neighbour about the abuse and she didn’t seem surprised. Gabe said she was a nice lady and her lack of action was probably a reflection on ‘the way things were back then’.
Boys in the training farm worked every day from before dawn until into the evening. One day, Wilcox chastised Gabe for being short a few cows for milking. ‘I must have back-chatted him, and he cut me with the whip down my arm. I’ve still got the scar. Then he cut me with the whip across the stomach. I went running off to find the cows and I never stopped. The cows wandered home themselves. Two days later they picked me up and took me back and that was when I copped the biggest flogging of my life. [Wilcox] belted me and belted me until I couldn’t stand up. He put me in what was called “the lock up” on the side veranda. I spent about 10 days in there. When I got out, I made the comment that if any of those officers ever touched me again, I’d kill ’em. I had nothing to lose.’
At 18, Gabe’s status as ward of the state ceased. There was no letter or acknowledgement, but he felt lucky that unlike other boys who woke up on their 18th birthdays to find a bag packed and a one-way ticket to Brisbane, he at least had a job and shelter on a nearby farm.
Thereafter, he remained in stable employment. He has been married for 45 years and enjoys his relationship with his sons and grandchildren. Even so, he has noticed that he has been reluctant to show physical affection.
‘One of the thing that’s hurt me is as much as I love my kids, as they’ve got older I push them away. I can’t even think of putting my arm round my oldest boys. My grandkids - I give them a cuddle, but the two oldest boys are 13, and I’m starting to hold them at arm’s length. I can’t bear to have them put their arms around me.’
Despite gentle prodding, Gabe had never disclosed the abuse to his wife for fear she’d reject him. ‘I wouldn’t like to lose her. She came from a different family where everyone loved each other. I didn’t have a family.’
In 2013, Gabe contacted the Anglican Church in search of his records. His initial requests were ignored and after some persistence, staff told him that he’d never been under their care. Only when he told them he had an appointment to speak to staff of the Royal Commission did they concede he had been in the home, and they sent a brief note with entry and exit dates.
In contrast, he’d found Salvation Army staff helpful in providing information and believing his story of abuse. At the time of speaking to the Royal Commission, he was awaiting the outcome of an assessment through the Salvation Army’s redress scheme.
‘I made up my mind that the system didn’t beat me and I’ve made the best out of my life that I can. My life’s getting shorter and shorter so you’ve got to learn to live with it and move on. And what comes out of it comes out of it.’