On a warm September day a world of memories came flooding back for a group of men who gathered at their old home.
Plaques placed at the former Salvation Army’s Gill Memorial Boys home recognised its history but for some it was woefully inadequate in acknowledging the abuse that occurred there. Former Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) president and resident Jim Luthy organises the reunions every year as a form of healing.
“It’s a chance for people to get together from different years and realise we are all in the same boat; there is no difference,” he said.
“A lot of people find this cathartic, find other people in the same situation and are not judged.”
Mr Luthy was instrumental in securing a worldwide apology from the Salvation Army in 2010 for abuse at its boys homes, including Gill, which operated from 1936 to 1976. It took some getting, he told The Post, and when he responded in Canberra’s Parliament House, he received a standing ovation. He also initiated council installation of a commemorative garden and plaque at Goulburn’s Victoria Park, recognising the city’s many former orphanages.
The 66-year-old Queensland man said he saw himself as an advocate for others who couldn’t speak up for themselves. Over the years, equipped with “half a Law degree,” he has steered many former residents through negotiations and compensation.
Mr Luthy was placed in Gill in 1965 and given the number twenty-three. His mother had died when he was four. His father, who he never knew, had abandoned them and Jim was subsequently looked after by a single woman until he went to the home. In 2014 he told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that he endured constant “verbal, physical, emotional and psychological abuse” at the hands of Salvation Army officers. He recalled a Lieutenant dragging a four-year-old boy down the stairs in the middle of the night after he wet the bed.
“I was hit across the mouth for standing up to him,” he said at the time.
He told The Post that when police picked up children who ran away from the home, nobody ever asked why they had absconded.
“Children couldn’t write at school because they were caned so much, but nobody asked why. There were never any deep and searching questions,” Mr Luthy said.
He left Gill after three years and soon after took up an apprenticeship with Qantas as a chef. He stayed in the hospitality industry and won several awards until deciding to become a TAFE teacher.
“I went to Goulburn High School and was told I was dumb. But I could never equate stupidity with being an orphan. It didn’t make sense,” he said.
“A love of learning” spurred him to complete a Bachelor of Education degree, and later, two Masters qualifications. Over the years he’s notched up several other degrees and taught in TAFEs and schools.
These days he has “a loving wife” and family. Asked how his experience had shaped him, Mr Luthy said he’d never really reached his full potential.
“I don’t think anyone really reaches their full potential in an abusive situation. Not everyone was abused but in that environment everyone was frightened,” he said.
Mr Luthy claimed 50,000 children passed through Goulburn’s orphanages between 1929 and 1975.
He has received several compensation payments from the Salvation Army over the years, none of which he requested.
“I never wanted the money, I just wanted an apology,” Mr Luthy said.
He was, however, an expert witness in a class action brought against the Salvation Army, involving another resident, Fred Walshe.
The Goulburn man was placed in Gill from 1966 to 1974, as were his brothers David (1966-68) and Peter (1966-78). Their mother suffered schizophrenia. Mr Luthy recounted one Saturday she caught the train from Moss Vale to see her sons but was turned away by the officers.
“Because it wasn’t the third Saturday of the month when there was visiting, she had to stand looking at her children through the fence. Then she had to wait in the cold before she caught the train home. These things affected you.”
Fred Walshe and his brother David also attended the recent reunion.
Fred gave evidence to the 2004 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care and the later Royal Commission, detailing his allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Salvation Army officers.
“For me, these reunions will always bring up memories but not to the extent of going home and having bad thoughts,” he said.
“In one way I am proud because what I did helped. I reported it to the Senate inquiry and Royal Commission.”
But another attendee, Bob Conway from Sydney, says he wants to “destroy” the Salvation Army.
He came to Gill as a 12-year-old in 1958 and spent two years there. He was placed there by a court after ‘wagging school’ and being accused of break, enter and steal from a house, which he denied.
It’s been too long and too many lives destroyed.
“It was ridiculous but you didn’t have to do much to be neglected back then,” Mr Conway said.
“...On my first night there I was molested by a Major. I was saved by his wife. On the third night I promised her I’d never speak of it again because she was a friend of my mother’s. I never did until I found CLAN in 2003/04.”
CLAN put him in touch with the Salvation Army and an ex gratia payment of $55,000 followed.
But Mr Conway suspected he wasn’t the Major’s only alleged victim, judging from what he said was the fear in another boy’s eyes when around him.
Mr Conway said he never had ill-feeling towards the Army up until 2003/04, was married in their church and even enjoyed good relations with some officers. Things changed when he joined CLAN’s committee for five years.
“I met boys who told the same story (of sexual and physical abuse) back to me. It had gone on for 50 years and the Salvation Army were enablers,” he said.
“...What I’d like now is to destroy them. It’s been too long and too many lives destroyed.”
Mr Conway told The Post that several ex-residents had taken their lives. As for the reunion, Mr Conway said he enjoyed the friendliness and attended every year.
“It has been healing. It started as a catch-up and became more regular. I’ve really enjoyed getting together.”
Mr Luthy thanked the Army officers who catered for the old boys’ lunch last Saturday and praised them for being so supportive of the reunion.
“There were some terrible officers but some good ones too and they don’t deserve to be tarnished with all that,” he said.
The reunion also included a morning tea at the Soldiers Club, a tour of the old Gill home, the re-screening of the apology, a gathering at Victoria Park and a dinner.