Georgia and her brother and sister were raised in a devout Salvation Army family, and her parents’ positions as officers entitled them to live in designated Army accommodation. It was a close community and the children were often cared for by other adults while their parents were at work.
From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Georgia was sexually abused on many occasions by various Salvation Army officers. The abuse began when she was four years old and in the care of the Sunday school teacher, Bill Burns, who also acted as babysitter for a number of children.
Then at age six, Georgia started going to Salvation Army camps run by Barry Kelleher who, together with his wife, organised sports and social activities. Georgia was abused by Kelleher for many years and when she was about eight or nine, his son Chris, who was 11 years her senior, also started sexually abusing her.
Georgia described the Salvation Army ‘family’ as a tight-knit group that had little contact with people who weren’t members. ‘I remember as a very young person thinking that sitting on someone’s knee and having them touch you was normal. Maybe this is just what happens.’
When she was 11, Georgia told the Commissioner she was violently raped by her brother’s friend. People knew this had happened but nothing was done. He later raped another girl who reported it to Army officers, but she was told not to discuss the matter again.
The Merewethers had a long tradition in the Salvation Army, with generations of the family being in positions of authority. When Georgia was in her early teens, she was sexually abused by Nathan Merewether for over 12 months. She disclosed it to her mother, who reported it to another Army officer as well as Nathan’s father. They told her to leave it with them, but nothing further was done. Georgia has since learnt that her sister was also abused by Merewether.
Georgia said she’s never reported any of the abusers to police or other authorities. ‘I don’t really know why. It’s hard to describe my life. My husband put it, that it’s like a cult. Even now the joke that the Salvation Army family is incestuous is a bit of a humourist thing, even with people in there. There’s humour that this is the family you’re born into and there’s acceptance of it.’
Georgia finds it confronting that the men who abused her still occupy positions of trust and are considered people of standing in the Salvation Army. At the time of speaking with the Royal Commission, she was considering making a report to Victoria Police. She also finds it difficult to accept the continued involvement of her mother and brother in Army life.
She told the Commissioner that she’s recently connected with other officers’ children who had left the community, and she thinks there’s been a change in the way society perceives child sexual abuse and adult survivors.
‘This process has been very therapeutic for me, to be listened to, to be believed … The stigma and silence around this is overwhelming.’