‘Three years in there – if you can imagine being put into Pentridge Prison, that was what that was like.’
In the late 1950s 11-year-old Oscar found himself in a boys’ home run by the Salvation Army in Melbourne. He’d been living with his father, but after getting into a fight at school his dad received a threatening letter from the Department of Human Services telling him to ‘do something about your son’.
‘There was no support in those days, there was nothing’, Oscar told the Commissioner. ‘It was, “Either you do what we tell you to do or we’re taking the kids off you, make them a ward of the state and you’ll never see them again”.’
The boys’ home was strictly run by Major Evatt, who used his fists, feet and a leather strap to enforce discipline. He was assisted by Lieutenant Farquhar, who was also prone to violence against the children when the mood took him. The boys received ‘no respect and no love’. The food was frequently contaminated with weevils and maggots, or mouldy. ‘I think the rats were better fed than us kids.’
Oscar recalls six of the boys escaping from the home. They were picked up by the police and brought back, no questions asked. The boys were taken to Evatt’s office, but their cries could be heard throughout the property. ‘I’ve heard screaming, but not like that. And that was in front of the police.’
Oscar was sexually abused on several occasions. One afternoon when Oscar returned to his dormitory he found one of the older boys, David Amos, waiting for him. Amos led him into an adjacent bedroom. ‘When we got to the room, Amos lifted me up onto the bed and anally raped me. I was squirming and tried to get away but he held me down. He stopped before he ejaculated because I started screaming loudly, so he let me go.’
Frightened and confused, Oscar told one of the other boys what had happened. The boy took him to Major Evatt’s office and Oscar reported the rape.
‘Not long after, Lieutenant Farquhar fronted up to the office and Major Evatt started calling me a liar and told me to stop telling lies. Lieutenant Farquhar then got involved and strapped me with an old leather strap across the backside and backs of my legs … I felt very, very confused. I thought I was doing the right thing by complaining and that I had spoken the truth but got belted and couldn't understand why.’
Some months later Oscar was again abused, this time by a young Salvation Army officer. The man forced Oscar onto a bed in the dormitory and lay on top of him, forcibly masturbating him. Oscar escaped and ran away to hide. He told another boy what had happened, but was too scared to report the abuse to senior officers after the flogging he had received when he first complained.
Oscar suffered further sexual abuse at the boys’ home and continual physical and mental abuse. He lived there for three years before he was suddenly transferred to a hospital, and soon after that, taken to live at a training farm run by the Methodist Church.
That experience was very different. When Oscar arrived he was greeted by the superintendent, who smiled and exclaimed, ‘It’s about bloody time. We’ve been trying to get you here for years. Where’ve you been?’
Oscar remembers his months in the cottage accommodation as a happy time. ‘Going out to that home was very special. That was like – you’re in a home. There was a lot of love, there was a lot of cuddling, which was very strange to me, because I never had that for three years. [The Salvation Army home] was very different. You got flogged, you got belted, molested, raped.’
Eventually Oscar was returned home to his father. He did not tell his dad or his grandmother about the abuse. ‘I was too scared, too embarrassed, too ashamed.’
Oscar told the Commissioner, ‘I was still very confused, and hurt. It hurts when you can’t say anything to anyone. But I ended up having a heart-to-heart with my mother, and that really hurt her … I’ve got a feeling she never forgave herself’.
Oscar has tried not to think about his time in the institutions. ‘I just switched off I guess. I just blotted it away, kept myself occupied.’ Nevertheless he has struggled to hold down a regular job all his life. ‘I became more aggressive, ill-mannered and abusive towards authority. Still am. I hate authority and authoritarians.’ Oscar also believes his experiences prevented him forming romantic relationships. He has never married.
In the early 2000s Oscar took a complaint to the Salvation Army and received some cash compensation from the Church. The money did not come with an apology or any admission of liability. There was no ongoing support. Oscar has undergone counselling at his own expense. He remains in contact with lawyers and believes there may be further legal action against the Salvation Army.
Meanwhile Oscar continues to live with the legacy of his abuse. ‘Even now where I live, I live near a high school and if l hear kids screaming it scares the living crap out of me because it reminds me of the abuse at [the boys’ home]. I have to tell myself that they are only playing.’