No admission: Inside story on Salvation Army sex abuse settlement

By Richard Baker And Nick Mckenzie
Sydney Morning Herald
November 26, 2017

[with video]

When Merrin Wake first met a legally-trained senior Salvation Army leader and the church's lawyer to report her alleged childhood sexual abuse by five men within the church, she went away feeling like she had not been believed.

Months later, after several more meetings in the Collins Street office of the Salvation Army's law firm, Ms Wake settled her case with a substantial out-of-court payment.

But the deed of release prepared by the Salvation Army's law firm made it clear the church was making no admissions by settling.

For Ms Wake, there would be no official acknowledgement of whether the Salvation Army accepted her allegations that from the age of three until her early teens she encountered abuse ranging from inappropriate touching to rape. 

Historical sexual abuse cases are notoriously difficult to navigate and there are often conflicting recollections. This is true of Ms Wake's case. Despite the settlement, the case continues to reverberate for Ms Wake and the Salvation Army, an organisation known for its good deeds, disdain for alcohol, quasi-military structure and Christmas carols.

The senior officer who Ms Wake alleges repeatedly molested her as a girl remains in a senior Salvation Army role in Melbourne which brings him into contact with children. He was temporarily stood down while a private investigator hired by the Salvation Army investigated Ms Wake's claims. The investigator was unable to substantiate them, due in part to a lack of witnesses.

The Army is confident the senior officer presents no risk. Ms Wake thinks differently.As for the other men Ms Wake alleges sexually abused her, one was dismissed from his officer position for unrelated disciplinary breaches shortly before she reported his alleged abuse. Two others remain ordinary church members, and one has died.

The Salvation Army is practised in settling historic sex abuse cases. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse heard the church has settled 418 claims since 1996, with payments ranging from $5000 to $50,000. It rejected or fought 27 claims.

The vast majority of these claims were lodged by former wards of the state placed into Salvation Army homes in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. The Royal Commission found many of these children endured horrific sexual abuse and cruel physical punishment.

But Ms Wake's case is in a different category. Unlike the abused children in Salvation Army homes,  Ms Wake was born into the church, not placed into its care by the state.

Ms Wake is part of a Salvation Amy group the public has not heard from before: the "OKs" or officers' kids. Ms Wake's parents were prominent Salvation Army officers at the church's Northcote Corps in suburban Melbourne, and later at the training college at Parkville.

Ms Wake is one of the few, perhaps the only Salvation Army "OK" in Australia to speak publicly about sexual abuse. Though she is aware of other officers' children who have privately claimed to have been abused, she says the strict and sheltered life inside the Salvation Army, where officers only marry other officers, makes it extremely difficult for them to speak out.

She says that when she tried to tell older women within the Salvation Army about what was happening to her she was told to either keep away from her alleged abusers or "stop being silly".

"Growing up in the army was very, what I'd call, insular. You were pretty much born into an organisation where you went to school with other officers' kids. You went on a Salvation Army bus to school. You were in playgroup, kindergarten, everything else with other officers' kids. You very rarely socialised or did anything outside of the Salvation Army," she says.

"It's very difficult for an 'OK' to speak out. Your whole life revolves around who your family is, what your name is, who is linked to that … a lot of our parents have devoted their whole lifetime to the Salvation Army."

Ms Wake's mother, brother and sister remain deeply involved with the Salvation Army, which has 1.5 million members worldwide and was founded in London in 1865 by Methodist minister William Booth. An extremely hierarchical organisation, its clergy are given military ranks while ordinary church members are known as "soldiers".

Leading Melbourne institutional abuse lawyer Angela Sdrinis​ says the "OKs" are a unique group who are "in a whole different category, and their stories are unheard".

Ms Sdrinis, who represented Ms Wake, says she has been approached by a small number of other Salvation Army officer children who claim to have been sexually abused either by officers, ordinary church members or by people in the church's care.

But Ms Sdrinis says all had so far opted against lodging claims for fear of destroying their relationship with their parents and siblings. Involving police was unthinkable.

The Salvation Army is understood to have privately settled a small number of historic sexual abuse cases involving officers' children. But Ms Wake's is the first to be made public.

Ms Wake did report her alleged abusers to Victoria Police's child abuse SANO taskforce, as did the Salvation Army after learning of the allegations. But she later withdrew her police complaint in an effort to resolve the settlement negotiations with the Salvation Army and after the police changed the detective handling her case.

In a February 2016 email, Ms Wake's lawyer, Ms Sdrinis, reported on a conversation with the Salvation Army's lawyer which gives an insight into how the settlement process was delayed while police remained involved. In the email, Ms Sdrinis writes how the army's lawyer "promised me he would get back to me with an offer now that you had again confirmed that you had put the police investigation on hold".

Though frustrating for complainants, it is common for religious organisations to pause financial settlements while police are involved. The Salvation Army said in a written response to questions that it reported all five men accused by Ms Wake to police and complied with police instructions not to alert the men to the complaints until police had first contacted them.

"The Army acted appropriately in respecting the police request. It should be pointed out that while the Army's investigation paused, communication around the settlement process slowed but did not stop completely,' the church's statement said.

Ms Wake found the settlement process legalistic and disbelieving, two criticisms of the Salvation Army also highlighted by the Royal Commission.

The Salvation Army said it was continuing to work on its policies to protect children as well as reporting and investigating sex abuse complaints.

Now in her early 40s, married with children and living on Victoria's Surf Coast, Ms Wake hopes that by speaking out about her experiences, other officers' children might feel able to confront the Salvation Army and get redress for their abuse.

And though the Salvation Army admitted to nothing in writing, Ms Wake says words said to her by a senior Salvation Army officer in her final meeting gave her some satisfaction that her account was believed.

"He did lean across the table and said, 'Yes, Merrin, I believe you. I believe this happened to you'."


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