‘I’ll hold the secret till I die. I’ll tell you … I’ve admitted it here for the first time ever … I feel a bit lighter in telling the story.’
Russell came to the Royal Commission to add his experience to the Salvation Army stories that were heard in the public hearing.
In the mid-1960s, Russell was placed in a Salvation Army boys’ home in Sydney. He remembers being sexually abused by an older boy soon after he arrived. From then on, he became aggressive and hyper-vigilant.
‘I was probably four or five … too small, too young to defend myself … I got him in the end … but I worked out and worked out and worked out until I could punish the crap out of him.’
The culture of the home was brutal and the boys were referred to by numbers. They were made to take communal showers while officers supervised. ‘They would get off on watching you.’
Punishments included having to stand still for hours, naked. Older boys would prey sexually on younger boys. Some boys were also taken to stay with different men on weekends, who sexually abused them. Russell remembers these men were called ‘Uncles’.
One of the officers was particularly violent and abusive. ‘He was the most vicious officer I ever encountered … If you didn’t do what he wanted you to do in his office he’d beat the crap out of you.’
Russell would steal food for the younger, weaker boys and would often support new boys arriving at the home. ‘I seen lots of broken kids come in. They get dropped off. You hear them crying.’ He took on the role of protector of the smaller boys.
‘I’d do anything. I’d be their spokesman … You had to do something to fight back.’
When Russell was about 12, a younger boy told him he was being sexually abused by a man who worked at the home, but wasn’t a Salvation Army officer. Russell decided he had to do something to stop the abuse. He ‘baited [him] and baited him and baited him’ until Russell had enough evidence to make the ‘good officer’ do something. The man was removed from the premises.
Russell was unable to tell anyone about the abuse. ‘The perpetrators that did it to me, they probably took heaps of little kids up to that room and who could you tell? … No one would believe you because this guy plays the trumpet for the Salvos … You’re just the scumbag … who could you possibly tell?’
Russell left the home when he was about 17 – ‘I was probably the longest serving kid’ – and found a job. ‘My education was terrible … I never studied … It was good money … and that was enough for me to do the runner … [I] just went to work and tried to save.’
When he was still a young man, his then girlfriend ended their relationship and Russell thought about taking his own life.
‘I’ve always strived to achieve something in my bloody life because when I was 20 I put a gun to my head and I was going to blow my own head off. I couldn’t pull the trigger and I put that gun down and I thought, “That’s it. I’m going to do something with my life”.’
Russell married and had children and has worked hard to forge a life for his family. ‘I always over-loved people, a problem I’ve corrected … I used to over-love and I hated rejection … That’s why I put that gun to my head … I worked it out. As you get older you think more about things.’
Russell hasn’t received any counselling to help him manage the trauma caused by the abuse. He’s been independently resourceful, stoic and resilient throughout his life.
‘I taught myself. I started to read books on the power of positive thinking … I always worked my arse off … and in the end I sort of tried to get control …
‘It does screw you up but you have to deal with it. You have to put it out of your mind. Because you can’t wreck tomorrow because of what happened yesterday … It’s always there [though].’
Anger has been an enduring problem for him. ‘The aggression of the boys’ home, it’s in you … You’re one screw loose … You have to learn to control your inner self. As you get older you do learn to control yourself.’
Russell has ongoing issues with intimacy, too. ‘I know what gets me – rejection. That’s what gets me … I pull back emotionally. I lock my emotions in a box.’ His wife tells him he is sometimes ‘as cold as ice’.
‘If I watch a movie that ends happy they swell up, [my] eyes … I have to move, because I’m embarrassed … When you’ve never had a real family as such and you watch a movie or whatever, and movies play on people’s emotions, I have to physically get up and leave the room.’
Russell also has trouble sleeping, a habit he knows comes from his years in the home. ‘I would lay awake – I learnt it in the boys’ home. I still do it today. Sleep with one eye open basically and you’re listening … to see who’s coming up on ya. You become primal. You go into a primal state. It’s survival.’
Russell’s wife and children know that he grew up in a home but he hasn’t told them he was sexually abused. Even though Russell knows it wasn’t his fault, he carries deep shame.
‘When you’ve been a strong person all your life, you’re then showing [weakness]… For me to say that [I was abused] makes me feel that I’m a piece of crap.’
‘I’ve been married [for over 20] years which is not bad for a crazy dude, but my wife is very balancing. But you know what, I’ve never told her … It’s too heavy for her.’
Russell is proud of his parenting and spends much of his spare time with his children. ‘I’ve tried my hardest to be a good father … I will go out of my way … I don’t worry about myself – I just try to get them over the line.’
In the last few years Russell has become involved in a local sporting group and finds the camaraderie supportive and enriching. ‘I found … a great bunch of blokes – it’s fantastic. I’ve been very blessed to have met some lovely people … I found doing that gets rid of any anger.’
Russell told the Commissioner, ‘I‘ve got a fridge full of beer that is my doctor – and mates. They’re cheaper than a bloody doctor.’