Gilbert’s mother left the family when Gilbert was a very young baby, and he was taken into care when he was two. Growing up, Gilbert and school didn’t get along. In trouble for truancy and shoplifting, he was sent to a Salvation Army centre for boys in Queensland. It was the 1960s and Gilbert was 11. He remained at the centre until he turned 18 and was no longer a ward of the state.
On the first night at the centre, Gilbert was sexually abused by an older boy. He told the Commissioner he remembered waking in the morning, and finding his clothes and sheets covered in blood. The Salvation Army staff member who’d come to rouse the boys for the day saw the blood but said nothing.
‘He knew something had happened – and he was going to do nothing,’ Gilbert recalled.
The abuse of that night was repeated many times over the next years. Gilbert was repeatedly raped, beaten and sexually assaulted by other boys, and the supervising staff turned a blind eye, despite Gilbert’s at times obvious injuries. He didn’t tell anyone what going on; he was too intimidated. ‘They threatened to kill me’, he said.
And he didn’t know who he could tell. ‘I couldn’t talk to the Salvos; they were keeping me there. The police brought me in. The boys wouldn’t help. I had no help from the group I was with. So there was nobody to talk to.’
By the time he turned 18 and his time at the centre came to end, Gilbert was ‘humiliated beyond repair’, he told the Commissioner.
In the years that followed, Gilbert found it hard to keep a job. He drifted into homelessness and lived on the streets for 17 years. He struggled with relationships. ‘It’s just I’m easy to snap for no reason. I tried to do the right thing with my girlfriend but if something goes wrong and she has a go at me I feel snappy.
‘I don’t like it. I know it’s not right and I know it’s my problem not hers. That’s why I’m on my own.’
Gilbert’s life began to change when he became a Big Issue vendor and made connections with people in a way he never had before.
‘I didn’t know – where I was at there was nobody prepared to help at all. I had nothing. Nobody to talk to, only myself. But when I started doing the Big Issue, there was so many people willing to help in so many ways.
'I didn’t know these people existed … I didn’t like society very much, but I’ve pretty much changed my mind in a lot of ways. There really are some nice people.’
One thing leads to another, and in Gilbert’s case a chance meeting resulted in phone calls being made and the offer of a public housing flat. With stable employment and a roof over his head, his life began to look very different. He has saved up and bought a fridge, a washing machine and TV, and enjoys his work.
‘I had a woman tell me today that I’m the most well-liked of the Big Issue vendors’, he told the Commissioner. ‘We have a laugh and a smile; I say gidday to everybody in the morning.’
Connections made through the Big Issue also led Gilbert to seek compensation for the abuse he’d suffered, through a government redress scheme. Helped by the Public Interest Law Clearing House, Gilbert received a payout of $29,000.
Gilbert has turned his life around but he still lives with the impact of the abuse every day, as he explained to the Commissioner.
‘I set the alarm, 5.30 I get up, I leave home at 7, so I’m awake for an hour and a half ... That’s the hardest times, the first bit before going out – when I get there I’m fine. While I’m out there I’m good; but when I get home, and I’m by myself, that’s when life catches up with you.’
Sleep helps, he told the Commissioner, and he also takes antidepressants. He has also begun seeing a therapist, organised through Relationships Australia.
‘It’s very early days and I don’t really know how therapy works – obviously it’s going to be a long process and I’m testing it to see how it goes. People do it and they say it’s good, but I don’t know, it’s too early for me yet.’
Looking back to his years at the centre, he's not yet ready to forgive.
‘To my mind, the Salvationists of today, be it right or wrong, have nothing to apologise for. They did nothing … If they want to say sorry and they truly believe in God, they should say sorry to God and pray for the souls of the ones that did it.
'Not say sorry to me. I’m not God. I have no interest in forgiveness. I have no forgiveness in me for them.’