‘Salvation Army officers can’t do any wrong’, Winnie said. She was speaking from experience, having tried to bring criminal charges against a high-ranking officer who abused her. With corroboration of her story evaporating when the time came to speak to police, Winnie was left with her word against the perpetrator’s. As a result, the police decided not to proceed.
Born in the early 1960s, the youngest in a large family, Winnie grew up in regional Queensland. Her father, a returned serviceman, had war injuries and was an alcoholic. Life was tough for her mother, who found comfort in belonging to the Salvation Army.
‘It was everything to Mum, and it was her way of coping with Dad’s alcoholism and everything else’, Winnie recalled.
Winnie’s father died when she was nine, and soon afterwards her mother decided to become a minister in the Salvation Army. ‘We were totally forgotten’, Winnie said.
‘The Salvation Army does a lot of good things but it is a cult’, she explained. ‘It is so wrong in so many ways … Like Mum always made sure our church clothes were clean, but nothing else was ever done. We were pretty neglected – very neglected. Food was very scarce and stuff like that.’
When Winnie was 13, her mother took up a post as assistant to Major Whitfield. He and his wife had four children, and Winnie became their regular babysitter. Winnie’s mother encouraged her to spend time with Whitfield, telling her she had to go when he invited her on early morning walks. Those walks became occasions for frequent sexual abuse.
It began with kissing – ‘He said he’d teach me how to kiss properly’ – and then fondling and touching. One time when Winnie was playing in the backyard with Whitfield’s children, he joined in and gave her a love bite. Later that afternoon he took her home and explained the bruise to her mother as an accident. ‘Mum got really angry and slapped my face in front of him for provoking him to do that to me.’
Winnie didn’t like what was happening, but she didn’t realise it was wrong. ‘He would refer to himself as “Dad”. He would tell people I was his daughter. So the hugs and things like that – I hadn’t had that experience with my own dad, so I really didn’t have an understanding of the kissing until later.’
When Winnie was 15, her mother enrolled at a Salvation Army Bible college and sent her to live with the Whitfields, who had been posted to regional NSW. Winnie’s mother was meant to visit every two weeks, but Winnie didn’t see her once during her six-month stay.
‘It was pretty quick that things started to get more sexual’, Winnie said.
The arrangement between Whitfield and his wife seemed to be that he would have sole charge of Winnie. This meant there was plenty of opportunity for him to molest her. It happened in his office after school and in her bedroom, which adjoined the Whitfields’ bedroom.
By now it was clear to Winnie the abuse was wrong. ‘It was all getting too much’, she said. At a youth camp she took herself away from the group for some time alone and was joined by Whitfield.
‘I said to him I didn’t like what was going on, and he said “We‘ll pray about it.” They prayed and he told her ‘It’s all under the blood now’ – a Salvation Army expression referring to the forgiveness of Jesus. ‘But it still kept happening’, Winnie said.
The situation was abruptly resolved when Whitfield’s wife sent Winnie away.
‘I think she became aware of what was happening. Then she phoned my mother and said I had to leave. She didn’t even come out of the bedroom to say goodbye.’
Winnie was dispatched back to Queensland, where she lived with another Salvation Army family, the Beechams. When she arrived she told Mrs Beecham about her experiences with Major Whitfield. ‘She did nothing’, Winnie said.
From that time until she finally went to the police in her mid-40s, Winnie told about a dozen people within the Salvation Army that Whitfield had abused her. All were in positions of authority in the Church. None ever disputed her account, and none ever suggested any further action. ‘No – they actually said you’ve got to forgive and forget and move on.’
At last, a woman officer, high up in the hierarchy, advised her to go to the police. ‘She was the first person who ever said that.’
Winnie decided to take her advice not long after her mother died. She was sorting through boxes of papers and came across a letter from Whitfield. ‘He made me practise signing my name and doing my Ws and Fs like him, when I was a kid. And when I saw his signature on a letter he’d written to Mum, it just all came back.’
Ultimately, police were unable to make a case. Whitfield had become a very important figure within the Salvation Army and no one would speak out against him. Winnie, an officer herself at this time, found herself shunned, with people dear to her such as the Beechams breaking off all contact. She’d also been rejected by her husband Bill’s family.
‘The whole family went against me and they still are today … Bill had life-threatening surgery two years ago and they demanded that I leave the hospital room so they could visit him. They had no right to do that but I left because it was right for Bill … They are wicked people yet they still promote being godly.’
In seeking evidence against Whitfield, police organised to record Winnie phoning him, in the hope he’d incriminate himself. That didn’t happen, but she did have the satisfaction of confronting him.
‘He said, “I know we had our special hugs and things”. I said “They weren’t hugs – that was sexual abuse. What you did to me was sexual abuse. What you did to me was wrong.”’
Listening back later she heard that her last words to Whitfield, spoken after he hung up, had accidentally been recorded – ‘You bastard’, she’d said.