Harriet's story

‘Where do we start? At the beginning. Where’s the beginning?’

In the late 1960s, when Harriet was four years old, she was sent with her younger sister to a Salvation Army home in Sydney to give their mother a break. Harriet remembers the stay as terrible and violent and each morning she’d wake her sister up in the dark to get dressed so the couple in charge wouldn’t hit them with a strap. ‘It was the most horrible place in the world’, Harriet said.

With her parents recently divorced, the Salvation Army came to occupy a large place for Harriet and her family. Her mother became ‘really enmeshed’ in Salvation Army life and directed her children to activities which included Bible study one night, tambourine practice another and ‘hardly a minute to breathe’.

Around the age of 11, Harriet would travel to regional areas of New South Wales to perform in Salvation Army musicals, where the children slept in halls on mattresses on the floor. Two men, Clem Johnson and another named Bernard, would tuck Harriet in at night, touch her breasts and as they were kissing her good night put their tongues in her mouth. ‘I had no idea what was going on’, Harriet said.

Harriet told the Commissioner she was 13 and training to be a ‘junior soldier’ when she met Envoy Neil Webber who was aged in his 30s. For between six and nine months in the mid-70s, Webber drove Harriet home every week from cadet training. On each trip, he’d drive to bushland near her home in Canberra and sexually abuse her.

‘He’d turn the car off and everything and he’d get me to take my top off and start kissing my breasts and all that, and telling me how lovely and soft my skin was and … then he’d get his penis out and start masturbating and getting my hand and making me feel him, and [he] put his fingers in my vagina.’

Harriet said Webber would pull her pants down but she didn’t have any memory of what happened next nor any recollection of trips back to her house. She told her mother she didn’t want to go to training anymore but not what Webber was doing, and her mother refused her requests.

When Harriet was in her early 20s, she disclosed the sexual abuse to her sisters one night when she was drunk. ‘Back then I think I was a very broken person’, Harriet said. ‘And I almost told them as if it wasn’t me. It was like, “Yeah, it happened”.’

From the age of 16, Harriet was drinking heavily and engaging in risk-taking behaviour. ‘I had no respect for myself’, she said. ‘None whatsoever. I was one of those girls that, well I only lasted maybe another year at school after it happened, so I didn’t even get to Year 10. I was a loner but I had a really tough exterior so nobody would try to get close to me because I didn’t do friends. But I talked to people.

‘But I had no regard for the law, and no regard for myself or even other people. Like a typical scenario would be, I’d break into the next door neighbour’s when I was maybe 14, 15, and I stole $300 and I caught the train up to Sydney one morning instead of going to school. And I’d just go out and walk the streets at night. But there was no fear. It was like a numbness. I was not scared of anything, which is weird because if I grew up with so much fear, why did I not then have any fear at all?’

At 30, Harriet started using drugs. She had two children who were removed from her care and she spent time in mental health facilities. After one suicide attempt, her father picked her up from hospital and took her to her mother’s house. Wanting to make her mother happy, Harriet agreed one day to go with her to church and there she met Mark, who she credits with helping turn her life around. They married, became active Christians and later had a daughter.

Harriet told the Commissioner that her mother believed her when she disclosed the abuse and she was supportive in Harriet coming to the Royal Commission. Her mother recounted Harriet’s abuse to a couple who were Salvation Army officer friends, and their response was, ‘You’d be surprised, it’s quite common’.

Harriet hadn’t considered reporting Webber to NSW Police, but said she was lately thinking about it. She’s optimistic about the future, though sometimes feels that ‘just below the surface is anger, so it’s like, don’t push me too hard’.

‘I just see a bright future now’, she said. ‘It’s like why couldn’t I feel that when I was 20? I’d be a millionaire by now. Oh well, not a millionaire, but you know what I mean. I would have made something of my life. … I just feel like I have to be successful and I’m 50 so there’s not much time left.

‘Providing my daughter a wonderful life, the complete opposite to what I provided to my sons, has been an absolute blessing for me. … We’ve just been very good parents, you know. We don’t go out, we don’t drink. There’s no nightlife. We’re in bed at 7.30 or all on the lounge together. And for me to be able to live that life, I’m blessed.’

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