Sue and her daughter Emma attended a private session at the Royal Commission to talk about the sexual abuse Emma and her sister, Michelle, experienced at the hands of their step-grandfather, Stanley. Michelle attended a separate private session.
Stanley was a volunteer with the Salvation Army, and ran their Sunday school. Emma recalled that ‘the abuse occurred primarily in [Stanley’s] residence and in his vehicle, and on at least one occasion at the Salvation Army church … where [he] conducted Sunday school. There were numerous occurrences of sexual assault … [ranging] from oral sex and forced fondling, to attempted penetration’.
Michelle told the Commissioner, ‘I don’t remember details of every time it happened … I remember other things that I’ve never told anyone, like I was always scared that there’d be mess on the white sheets, that someone would see and I’d get in trouble, or that someone would notice how much toilet paper was getting used when I had to clean up after …
‘How I’d practise breathing and pretending to be asleep, and then how guilty I’d feel when he went to my little sister’s bed instead.’
The girls didn’t tell anyone about the abuse at the time. Emma recalled that ‘we often witnessed each other being assaulted, and would hide together under the bed when we could hear [him] approaching’.
Michelle had the impression that Stanley was ‘a respected man, a religious man’ and she remembers his ‘crisp, white uniform [from] the Salvation Army’. As well as running the Sunday school and working in the thrift shop, Stanley helped out at events such as the Christmas parties.
The abuse began when Emma was four, and stopped when the family moved to a different area of Queensland in the late 1980s, when she was 10.
Sue recalled that after they moved, ‘the girls went through a program at school … and it was like a sexual assault awareness thing … for primary school kids … and I heard them talking out the front. One of them [was] saying, “We should tell Mum” … “No, we can’t” … and I just happened to be at the window and overheard them … and that’s what came out …’
After the revelation, Sue was unsure what to do. She eventually decided to confront Stanley, and when she told him that she knew what he had done, he replied, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt them’.
Years later, when Sue tried to tape a confession from Stanley for the lawyers she had consulted, he denied the abuse. Sue also approached two senior officers in the Salvation Army and asked that Stanley receive help for his problem. The officers didn’t believe that Stanley would sexually abuse children.
Emma told the Commissioner that ‘our mother made arrangements for [us] to receive counselling … I recall our family discussions with regards to criminal prosecution … and although I wanted Stanley to be held accountable … the decision was taken not to proceed against [him] … I was assured that he would receive help and would not be able to re-offend. This was enough for me to let it go at that time’.
According to Emma, ‘Michelle really didn’t want to have to talk about [the abuse] in front of people. She did not want to make a statement … Our concern was that we didn’t want anybody else to be hurt by him and we felt that by going to the Church and arranging counselling, that would be the best course of action to prevent that’.
As soon as Sue had approached him, Stanley phoned a lieutenant in the Salvation Army, Bill Parsons. He came to visit Stanley and told him that he didn’t believe he would have sexually abused the girls.
Even though Stanley signed a statutory declaration in 2014 saying that Bill had visited him in the late 80s, Bill signed one saying that he had no contact with Stanley at that time, and that he was unaware of the allegations of sexual abuse.
Another senior officer that Sue spoke to denied a close relationship with Stanley and his wife, Elaine, even though he had co-officiated at their wedding, and had been a frequent visitor to Elaine’s house. Sue also had copies of personal references written by the officer for both Stanley and Elaine, but he chose to distance himself from the couple.
Although the family has tried to obtain an apology and compensation from the Salvation Army, their lawyer has told them that there is little they can do. The Salvation Army is refusing to acknowledge responsibility, saying that the abuse was familial, not institutional. They also deny that Stanley was involved with working with children when he was a volunteer.
Sue and her daughters have reported Stanley to the police and have provided statements. They are fairly confident that he is going to be charged, and are waiting to hear about a trial date.
The sexual abuse and the response by the Salvation Army have had a huge impact on the three women. Sue suffers from ill health that she attributes to the stress she has been under since the abuse was revealed.
According to Emma, ‘It’s a big thing for me, in every aspect of my life, personal relationships with people, my employment … I had a good job. I was doing really well … but only up to a point. I had undiagnosed PTSD all those years …
‘Part of the reason why people often take such a long time to report these things … You’re not fully aware of the impact it’s had on you … Once I realised just what an impact it had on me, my life fell apart. It’s been really tough.’
Michelle told the Commissioner, ‘My grades in school deteriorated after the abuse. I started to become rebellious. I was drinking and partying. I fell pregnant … dropped out of school … My life has been completely turned upside down by the abuse … I still struggle with nightmares and flashbacks …
‘The abuse has had a devastating impact upon our family. We are still picking up the pieces of our relationships.’
Emma also went through a rebellious period during her teens, and experiences similar nightmares and flashbacks. ‘My episodes are caused by common triggers such as hearing anything about the Salvos. The smell of Sunlight soap causes me to have flashbacks, because it is the soap they used in the house … I am still receiving regular counselling …
‘On several occasions throughout my career, my depression and anxiety have interfered with my professional life. I have difficulty relating to people … I am currently deemed medically unfit to work.’
Sue told the Commissioner that Bill Parsons ‘failing to do his duty in [the late 80s] has caused my daughters a lot of pain. They felt they were being called liars. We wanted to ensure no other little kids got hurt … and 20 years went by with the offender still a volunteer’. Michelle ‘was gutted by [the] response because they were suggesting we were lying and because I knew he worked in close contact with children’.
Emma added, ‘The possibility that there may be other victims disturbs me greatly. It makes me angry that nothing has been done about the abuse’.
Michelle has spent the last 30 years ‘feeling like what happened didn’t matter. It wasn’t important enough for them to acknowledge, like I made it up. I raised my children telling them that there are no such things as monsters, when they wake at night …
‘But [now, in my late 30s], I can’t stand to be in the dark. There are monsters, and bad things happen in the dark … The only chance I had at life [is] now … tattered [and] torn. I lost the thing that mattered most … my innocence.’
Emma came to the Royal Commission in order to ‘receive closure’. ‘Although I am in a fragile state, I am committed to following through on the process of obtaining justice. I want some stability in my life so I can return to work and begin rebuilding my career’.
Sue wanted to use the private session as ‘an opportunity to complain about this awful process, and what [the Salvation Army] is saying in public … That’s what we needed to tell you. What they’re saying in public and what really is happening is two different things. The fighting and arguing we’ve had to go through, and still got nowhere …’