“Merry bloody Christmas, Mr Walker!”
These were the words of a victim of former Salvation Army captain Russell Robert Walker after emerging from Darlinghurst District Court on Monday.
Judge Greg Grogin had just handed down a 16-year prison sentence with 12 years non-parole to the 76-year-old for sexual and indecent assault of young boys while he was serving at the Army’s Goulburn and Bexley boys homes. The offences were committed between 1971 and 1974 against six boys aged nine to 14.
“It’s been a long road and sitting here today, the memories have come flooding back … It was a traumatic experience,” the victim, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, told the Post.
“I’m happy with the sentence.”
Walker was arrested in September 2016 following investigations by Strikeforce Lehmann into allegations of sexual abuse at both boys homes. He was subsequently charged with 33 historical sex offences.
In July 2018, he was found guilty of 18 counts of assault on a male, two counts of buggery, and one each of attempting to procure/commission an indecent act with a male and procuring/commissioning an indecent act.
He had pleaded not guilty to all charges; but in September he pleaded guilty to a further two charges of indecent assault on a male.
Walker, who has HIV AIDS, has been held in Silverwater Jail since then.
On Monday he appeared in the dock, neatly dressed in a brown suit to hear his sentence.
Judge Grogin said Walker had shown no remorse for his offences, save for two charges to which he had pleaded guilty only this year.
He detailed abuses against the six boys, which ranged from kissing to genital fondling, anal penetration with his finger, and sexual intercourse.
He told how Walker had joined the Salvation Army in 1966 and had several other postings before going to Bexley from 1971 to 1972 and Goulburn from 1972 to 1974.
“Over three years the offender committed these offences against six young vulnerable boys and this cannot be refuted,” Judge Grogin said.
“He abused his position of authority and trust ... The Crown says this cannot be disputed and I agree.”
He said the boys were vulnerable by reason of their age and living in a boys home.
Judge Grogin told the court many of the boys could not talk about their experience for years. Even at the homes, they were afraid to speak out for fear of further punishment.
One victim gave evidence in the trial that on the first morning he arrived at the Gill Memorial Boys' Home on Auburn Street in Goulburn, he was “belted around the head” for failing to make his bed.
Walker had treated him in a sick bay for stomach pains and kissed him “for what felt like a very,very long time”. When he resisted, Walker had held back his head.
Judge Grogin said Walker had used his position to isolate children, often under the guise of punishment, and taken the opportunity to abuse them.
On one, he performed oral sex six times. Some of the abuse occurred in the home’s bell tower where the boy was made to sit on the floor while Walker kissed him, or with his back to the wall while he penetrated him.
“I don’t know how to explain fear,” he had told the court.
Finally, the boy ran away from the home and reported it to police. The policeman had hit him over the head and told him to stop spreading rumours, then took him back to the home where he was subsequently punished.
Another boy also escaped the facility after being caned 37 times for swearing. Judge Grogin said that, later that night, Walker went to the boy’s bed, asked him what was wrong and said: “God loves you, God forgives you,” before performing anal sex on him.
The court also heard of an instance in which Walker had forced a boy to scrub a bathroom with a toothbrush while naked. One victim said he had run away from the home “because he was frightened he would be molested again”.
The judge said while corporal punishment was socially accepted at the time, “it was plain from the evidence that [at Gill] it went beyond the limits of the law”.
“It is acknowledged the 24 counts don’t represent the extent of his criminality,” Judge Grogin said of Walker’s sexual offending.
The former officer was dismissed from the Salvation Army after being found guilty of two counts of indecent assault at the Gill Home in 1974.
Weighing up sentence
The defence had argued that the fact Walker had not offended since 1974 should be taken into account in any jail term.
Judge Grogin also referred to expert evidence that the defendant’s HIV condition would be worsened by a lengthy prison term that didn’t allow adequate treatment.
In a reference to the court, a Leichhardt Church pastor had also described Walker as “a kind and decent person who dedicated himself to helping the poor”.
He had collected bakery bread and distributed it to those less fortunate, as well as hosting regular barbecues for them.
Following his time with the Salvation Army, Walker became a welfare officer.
He later volunteered on a welfare project, using his carpentry skills to restore furniture.
In a reference, the welfare officer there said Walker was highly regarded.
“She found him to be thoughtful, kind and generous and always committed to helping people,” his defence said.
Judge Grogin said he had to balance the new sentencing regime captured in Section 25AA against Section 81A that applied at the time. The new Act did not capture the buggery offence.
He cited numerous case law, but said the court had regard to the victims’ ages, the nature of the touching, the relationship between Walker and the boys, the extent of planning, the fact they were isolated when the offences occurred and the degree of force used.
“The Crown submits that the offending has had a profound impact and that has not reduced over time,” he said.
“...I have had the benefit of reading the victim impact statements and they made it perfectly clear the effects have been long-term.”
While the defence had argued one abuse was at the lower end of the scale, the judge found it was “at the top end”.
Judge Grogin said there was a strong need for general deterrence despite the fact Walker hadn’t offended since.
“The fact that he has not re-offended does not reduce the seriousness,” he said.
“...I do not take into account his previous good character because it was good character that enabled him to work in that position.”
The judge also maintained Walker’s health treatment could be managed in jail.
He said an aggregate sentence was appropriate and cited the maximum penalty for each offence. Further, Walker had not shown any “remorse or contrition” by pleading not guilty on most of the charges. He granted a 25 per cent discount on the the two charges of indecent assault to which Walker pleaded guilty in September.
No further action was taken on two charges: indecent assault on a male and procure indecent act with a male.
Judge Grogin handed down a 16-year sentence with a non-parole period of 12 years. Walker will be eligible for release on July 21, 2030, taking into account time already served.
Walker hung his head and buttoned his jacket as Corrective Services officers escorted him below the dock.
After the hearing, Strikeforce Lehmann Detective Sergeant Nigel Warren said the response from complainants had been positive.
“They feel it is adequate,” he said of the term.
He declined to provide further comment because of ongoing investigations into other Salvation Army officers, which also emerged from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
One victim who was unable to attend Monday’s hearing had mixed emotions upon hearing the sentence.
“Would it ever be enough?” he asked.
“My view is that if all the victims had the capacity to have ongoing counselling and a legal avenue other than the paltry redress scheme at the moment, it would have been a far better thing.”
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