Behind the red shield

Annette Blackwell
AAP

The appeal of the red shield will have lost its aura of quaint goodness after the second public hearing into how the Salvation Army treated victims of abuse.

It was not only the stories of stomach-churning child abuse that happened years ago that stopped Australia in its tracks this time.

What the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse laid bare over the past three weeks is a 19th century Christian charity struggling to realise it has to come into the 20th, never mind the 21st century.

"They just don't get it," said Leonie Sheedy, co-founder of Care Leavers Australia Network.

Sheedy and the members of her organisation have been at the Sydney hearings to support the men and women who had sad, sad childhoods in Salvation Army homes.

She was commenting a few days after a senior member of the army, former head of personnel Major Peter Farthing, gave evidence.

Farthing is articulate and plausible, just like his boss Commissioner James Condon, the commander of the army in NSW, Queensland and the ACT.

They both smothered the commission, the lawyers, the public and the media with words of regret.

It was the same approach that had some media commentators lamenting after the first hearing in February: "Why can't the Catholic Church be more like the Salvos?"

A version of "forgive us we have failed, tell us what we can do to make amends" was said again and again.

At this hearing however, once you came up for air you realised: the Salvation Army until now did not fully apply or maybe even understand the laws of the land when it came to reporting crimes of violence and sex abuse; the Salvation Army still does not fully understand the impacts of abuse and it seems to think throwing fistful of dollars ad hoc at people is a salve for deep hurt and trauma.

The tune to which Salvationism march may be the one written by William Booth, a 19th century Protestant reformer with a militaristic bent, but 21st century standards are what most Australians expect.

What Australia did not expect to hear was that 25 years after a Salvation Army officer admitted assaulting an eight-year-old girl, he was holding a high rank in god's army and was running a crisis shelter for women and children.

Lieutenant Colonel Colin Haggar was demoted and forced to retire in October 2013.

By then, the army was preparing itself for public scrutiny at the royal commission.

His offence/s happened in 1989 when he and his wife Kerry Haggar were stationed in a central western NSW town.

When he and his wife were dismissed in 1990, the army provided accommodation and support.

Even in the late 20th century, it would have seemed unfair to the rest of us that Kerry Haggar lost her job because her husband sinned.

But those were the army rules.

And it is rules such as these that set Salvationism apart.

When Colin Haggar's promotion was questioned at the commission, it was told he held the high rank only because his wife had been appointed to the executive - and the rules say a husband has to have the same rank.

The army rules were trotted out several times at this hearing in the same way the Catholic clergy might refer to papal infallibility.

Army rules led to the Haggars being welcomed back three years after their dismissal. They had completed their journey of spiritual growth.

"We are taking a break from the duties of officership so that we can spend time on our own spiritual growth" is what the couple wrote to adherents in the NSW town to explain their departure in 1990.

At the commission hearing last week, John Agius, SC, for the state of NSW, asked Kerry Haggar if she was lying when she wrote that.

She said she could not see that she was.

The commission had been told that in 1990 Haggar, accompanied by then captain Condon, had gone to police to confess but police had turned him away. Exactly why is also vague.

Neither Kerry Haggar nor James Condon could remember the police station in Sydney to which Colin Haggar had gone. State counsel had difficulty with that.

Agius's line of questioning left women pondering how much they'd remember 25 years on if their husbands had told them they were off to police to confess to molesting a child.

Former NSW detective John Greville has been employed by the army to investigate historical child abuse cases.

His six-month contract expires at the end of April and so far he has found no evidence the Salvation Army ever conducted a proper investigation into Colin Haggar - other than to listen to Colin Haggar.

JD, the mother of the girl molested by Haggar, told the commission she was told that a uniformed officer's version would be accepted before that of a mere worker. JD ran the local op-shop at the time.

Like any church, unless you are a member, it's hard to grasp the underpinning cultural imperatives. Commission hearings provide some insight.

No one shouted Hallelujah but Jesus got mentioned a lot.

When Peter Farthing tried to explain why sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl doesn't make you a pedophile, his assessment, no doubt unintentionally, came across as an example of what a cult might do - rationalise and sanctify its actions.

This impression was compounded by other evidence suggesting in some cases accused officers are only stood down when a 21st century public spotlight shines on the army.

Meanwhile abuse victims expressed anger, hurt and sheer bemusement at how their complaints were handled - in some cases they said they felt the army wished they would just take the money and go away.

Leonie Sheedy says she wonders if the Salvation Army is taking the commission seriously. It is a question worth asking.