Graham Rundle's garden gave solace during intense personal and legal struggles stemming from childhood sexual abuse.

Graham Rundle's garden gave solace during intense personal and legal struggles stemming from childhood sexual abuse. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

GRAHAM Rundle was seven when he became a number, in the quiet outside a storeroom at a Salvation Army boys' home in the Adelaide Hills.

44. It was the number he would carry for eight years.

He was given this number by a Salvation Army sergeant, a man who, nearly 50 years later, would scream hysterically after a jury convicted him of violently raping four boys at the home, including the child known as 44.

Sanctuary: Graham Rundle in his garden.

Sanctuary: Graham Rundle in his garden. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

Sergeant William Keith Ellis was 27 on Rundle’s first day at Eden Park boys' home in 1960.

Rundle was a bewildered child taken to Eden Park by his father on the promise of a two or three week ‘‘holiday’’ with other children, after problems with his stepmother.

When his father left that day ‘‘he tapped me on the head, walked to his truck and started it up, and he didn’t look at me again’’.

‘‘I waved, but he was already around the side of the building. He was gone,’’ Rundle said.

The small boy cried. Ellis, who was a supervisor at the home, told him to stop it.

The life Rundle would have led ended there, in a dusty driveway outside a boys' home that South Australian Supreme Court Justice Michael David would describe, while sentencing Ellis in 2009, as ‘‘an horrific place by any standards, let alone modern standards’’.

‘‘There was evidence of beatings, harshness and cruel incarceration by way of punishment of defenceless and vulnerable boys who were placed in the home, mainly because they were seen to come from dysfunctional backgrounds,’’ the judge found. ‘‘It makes it difficult to understand how all this took place for an extended period of time virtually under the noses of the community of this state. The very existence of the Eden Park boys' home and how it was run was a disgrace.’’

Rundle has vivid, nightmare memories of becoming number 44. He remembers the toys in the storeroom, boxes with numbers on them and a few old suitcases. 

He remembers Ellis watching him as he stripped the clothes off his skinny frame and put on the clothes of a previous number 44.

‘‘They were too big, but he yelled at me to put them on,’’ said Rundle.

He remembers the smells in the dormitory – the sour bite of stale urine and the mouldy damp. But there were other ‘‘weird’’ smells that still manage to reach out to Rundle today, without warning, and haunt his nights. In 1960, for the little lost boy in oversized clothes who was promised a holiday, the smells were just one more shock in a series of shocks that would stretch on for weeks, months and years.

It was another four decades before Rundle went to the Salvation Army about Sergeant Ellis, who raped boys during private Bible readings, or in his bedroom at his mother’s home while she slept in a nearby room, after giving the boys milk and biscuits before bed, and wishing them good night.

Rundle told the Salvation Army in 2000 about how Ellis would beat him after raping him, saying it was the boy’s fault and ‘‘it was the devil in me that made me do it’’.

Rundle told them: ‘‘I can still hear the horrible sound of him grunting’’.

But it took until 2009 for Ellis to be convicted, and until 2010 for the Salvation Army to stop fighting and pay a substantial financial settlement.

‘‘They had no intention to do the right thing with me. They were made to do it. It’s as simple as that,’’ said Rundle.

It took a long, long time for the Salvation Army to accept that Graham Rundle, number 44, had won.

 

The Salvation Army’s abuse of children in its care has shocked Australians.

The Catholic Church’s long history of protecting its paedophile priests, moving them from parish to parish after allegations, and failing to acknowledge ‘‘sins’’ as crimes that should be reported to police, was documented enough that its shock value gave way to resigned disgust and dismay years ago.

The Anglican Church came clean in 2009 with its Study of Reported Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church, which analysed 191 reported abuse cases from 17 Australian dioceses and established, among other things, that an average 23 years passed before people who were sexually abused as children reported the abuse, and false allegations were rare.

But revelations about the Salvos were different.

Despite a formal apology in Canberra in December 2010 to children in its care up to the 1990s, in which it acknowledged the ‘‘rigid, harsh and authoritarian’’ environment inside many of its homes, where ‘‘many children did not experience the gentleness of love that they needed’’, it was not until the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse, in 2012, that the Salvation Army’s horrific history of abuse became more generally known.

Salvation Army legal secretary Malcolm Roberts told the inquiry it had received 474 abuse claims since the late 1990s, with 470 arising from its children’s homes. About 50 Salvation Army officers had been named as child abusers.

It had already paid $15.5 million to victims, and had an annual budget of $4 million for abuse compensation.

‘‘We are ashamed and deeply regret what occurred all those years ago, and for those who were abused and whose lives have been so damaged, I sincerely apologise on behalf of the Salvation Army. We are deeply sorry,’’ Roberts told the inquiry.

The final blows came during public hearings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this year. In January the royal commission considered the Salvation Army’s response to child sexual abuse at boys' homes in Indooroopilly and Riverview in Queensland, and Bexley and Goulburn in NSW. In March it looked at the handling of claims of child sexual abuse between 1993 and 2014 by the Salvation Army’s eastern territory.

It hasn’t yet considered Salvation Army children’s homes in South Australia.

The Salvos’ fall from grace was reflected in Red Shield Appeal weekend donations, which dropped from nearly $7 million in 2011, to $6.6 million in 2012, $6.17 million in 2013, and $4.97 million in May this year, in the wake of damning evidence at the royal commission.

Graham Rundle knows about the Salvos’ fall from grace. His fight with them from 2000 helped precipitate it.

‘‘People used to say to me, ‘I can’t believe that happened. Not the Salvos’. That’s part of the reason I kept going. They were getting away with payments of $20,000 or $25,000 to people whose lives had been destroyed, and they could only do that because no one believed the Salvos could do what they did.

‘‘No one believed you. I had one bloke say to me, ‘What, someone touched you on the dick?’, and I said to him, ‘What if your boy was raped more than 100 times, because Ellis did it to me more than 100 times. So you’d be OK if that happened to your boy?’ He shut up after that.’’

 

Rundle started the book about his eight years at Eden Park, 44: A Tale of Survival, at 5.20pm on Thursday, May 3, 2007, with the words: ‘‘It was a great day because my Nana was coming to visit me.’’

He finished one month later, at 10.15pm on Wednesday, June 6, by writing ‘‘The end.’’

He wrote in bursts of seven to eight hours, in longhand, despite the terrors that reduced his sleep to three hours a night at most.

‘‘It started to shock me, the detail I remembered and how much was coming out, but I couldn’t stop it. There were so many tears writing it but I didn’t have control. Because I’d spend all friggin’ day and half the night thinking about it, everything came flooding back,’’ he said.

He wrote about the rapes – not only those involving Ellis, but brutal sexual attacks by older boys. He wrote about the floggings and beatings; the random, senseless, violent acts of adults who talked about God and read from the Bible, but reminded boys like Rundle that ‘‘I was here at Eden Park because nobody wanted to look after me, they didn’t want to look after me either, but it was their job to do it’’.

He remembered the lockup – a black, freezing, windowless hole the size of an outdoor toilet – where Salvation Army men told boys they would be sent so their spirits were broken. Rundle wrote about the terror of nights in the lockup, but also of the little lizard that appeared in the light under the door and ‘‘wandered in and out, looking for dead bugs’’. He fed his ‘‘little friend’’ pieces of cockroach he killed in the dark.

He wrote about his Nana, Merle (Myrtle) Rose Rundle, who raised him from the age of 18 months after his mother left home to live with another man, until he was five when his father remarried. Years later he discovered his Nana tried to gain custody of him while he was at Eden Park. For the first two years she did not know where he was.

His Nana was family and home.

On Christmas Day when he was nine, the boy known as number 44 wept for his Nana.

‘‘I didn’t remember much of what happened before I came to Eden Park, except that my Nana was always nice to me and hugged me,’’ he wrote in his book.

‘‘What made me cry now was that I realised I couldn’t remember what Nana looked like. I was starting to forget the face of the only person I cared about.’’

 

Merle Rundle died in May, 1998, when Graham Rundle was 46.

Three decades earlier he had run away from Eden Park for good, been reunited with his grandmother and joined Ashton Circus.

Twice, when he was 18 and 22, he attempted suicide. The first attempt involved a shotgun.

‘‘I was two to three weeks into living in this old hut and the nightmares came back and I thought there wasn’t much point going on,’’ he said.

‘‘So I stuck it up to my head and it went click, but it didn’t go off. I was so pissed off I threw it on the ground and it went off. Boom. That made me even angrier because I couldn’t even kill myself.’’

The second time Rundle tried to commit suicide was about four years later. He took the jagged lid of a tin can and hacked at his wrist.

‘‘I tried and tried but it wouldn’t happen,’’ he said.

‘‘I drove to Gosford Hospital saying to myself, ‘You’re a f...ing idiot’, and I made up a story to explain the hack marks while they sewed me back up, but that was it. I knew I’d never, ever do it again.’’

For 30 years after he left Eden Park he was a circus hand, Pizza Hut cook, kitchenhand, dish pig, hospital cleaner, builder and plumber.

He bought a bush block on an isolated ridge along the road to Wollombi in 1979, started building a house there and married his wife, Sharon. They had two children, Paul and Erin.

Rundle suffered night terrors for all those years. He slept two or three hours at most and woke screaming. He was a fit and wiry nugget of a man whose bosses valued him for the way he drove himself on the job, but they despaired of the times when he couldn’t work, when sheer exhaustion and the terrors meant the blackness descended.

Rundle did not speak about Eden Park to anyone.

‘‘I didn’t know about it until I read his police statement,’’ said Sharon Rundle.

‘‘I came from England. He didn’t speak about things. I thought, oh well, he’s that strong, silent type. It was so hard when I finally knew. I thought, who is this fellow I thought I knew? I think he didn’t want to contaminate this world with that one.’’

Merle Rundle’s death untapped the grief that Rundle had buried for decades. He frightened his wife and children with his anger, and in February 2000 he got in his car and drove to South Australia.

‘‘In the back of my head I was thinking, if I go back there, even if the home wasn’t there any more and it was just paddocks, it would settle the thing and I could get on with it. It didn’t happen that way. I drove up the driveway and boom, I was back there. A little kid. Trapped.’’

The heritage buildings were the same.

‘‘The first building I went into was the old library, and that was where the first rape happened. 

"Then the stairs. He dragged me under the stairs and when I saw them the tears came and it was like a tap. They wouldn’t stop.’’

He spoke to the Salvation Army a few days later. Later still, he spoke to police.

 

There is a garden beside the house that Rundle built on the bush block off the road to Wollombi. It spreads for nearly one hectare. There are winding bare earth pathways beneath gums and flowering native trees, and there are rocks. Thousands of rocks.

The garden started in 2003 when Rundle built a fence behind the house, above a drop-off of several hundred metres to the bottom of the gully. There was no plan. The garden was and is therapy, emotional outlet, anger management repository, creative achievement, place of solace, and home to the broken, discarded, abandoned and unwanted.

It is a peaceful place, where an old bird cage sits beside scented herbs; a pot sits on an abandoned stove; a chandelier throws thin shafts of rainbow light and Rundle creates beauty.

From 2003, after he spoke to police about Ellis and launched civil action against the Salvation Army, Rundle has hauled rocks to his garden and documented every milestone of his court battles with a hammer and chisel on stone.

In February, 2005 Ellis was charged with raping two Eden Park boys, including Rundle.

A rock in his garden notes a date, ‘‘7-5-07’’, and on it stands a statue of a Japanese warrior. It is the date Rundle won a battle with the Salvos that allowed his compensation claim to proceed against them.

Another rock shows ‘‘11-12-08’’, when the Salvation Army’s appeal against that decision was dismissed.

Up a winding path is another rock bearing ‘‘7-4-09’’, the date Ellis was found guilty. Nearby is another rock, with the number 44 at the top, and beneath it ‘‘27-4-10, Karma’’, the date Ellis’s appeal was dismissed.

A final rock shows the date ‘‘9-7-10’’, when the Salvation Army settled Rundle’s substantial financial settlement.

The rocks are surrounded by plants and statues. The garden is calm, the dates look solid, but they don’t tell the full story of the struggle. They don’t mention how a NSW Supreme Court judge, and three NSW Court of Appeal judges, expressed concerns about evidence by two solicitors representing the Salvation Army in 2007, during a hearing that could have ended Rundle’s compensation case.

The solicitors’ evidence was ‘‘misleading’’, ‘‘disingenuous’’ and ‘‘worrying’’, the judges said, but professional misconduct action by the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner was withdrawn, after a review of ‘‘new material’’ – not disclosed to Rundle – provided by the solicitors on the eve of a public hearing.

The rocks are silent about the four years to get Sergeant Ellis to trial. His age, his health, the withdrawal of his lawyers, led to lengthy delays. Rundle’s garden grew during those years.

‘‘I needed to lift those rocks. I’d be so cranky with the bastards, I was just so pissed off, that I’d find a huge rock at the bottom of the hill. After three hours of struggling with a dirty big rock I’d be calm, then the next day I’d make a wall. I’d build something.

‘‘Somewhere along the way I thought, well, if it all goes belly-up at least I’ll get a garden, but I always felt I’d win. I was telling the truth.’’

 

Ellis was 76 when he was found guilty in 2009 of raping four Eden Park boys between 1960 and 1971. His trial included extraordinary scenes. Ambulances were called after he appeared to suffer convulsions. There were delays to determine his state of health.

As the word ‘‘guilty’’ was repeated 13 times, on all 13 charges, Ellis’s shrieks turned to hysterical screaming.

‘‘He just started this banshee scream and thrashing his feet. I’ve heard some horrible screams in my life but this was horrendous. Then they tried to get him out and he wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t move. There were two sheriffs trying to move him but he just kept screaming,’’ said Rundle.

‘‘I had people running at me worried about how I was taking it but I wasn’t going out. I thought, you bastard. Now you know what it’s like.’’

Ellis was sentenced to 16 years’ jail. He still appears in Rundle’s nightmares, but when he wakes he knows Ellis is gone for good.

Rundle’s mother is dead. His father is still alive. Last year he sent a message to his son.

‘‘He said he didn’t think he’d make it to Christmas. He wanted to talk. I thought I’ll do the right thing, so I rang him.’’

They spoke five or six times by phone.

‘‘Not once did he say to me, ‘I’m really sorry about what happened to you’, which is all I wanted. I reckoned it was just about him, so I stopped calling.’’

Rundle has two granddaughters, aged 15 and 10. They help him in the garden. He loves them and they love him. His son and daughter are horrified by their father’s past, but they remain extremely close.

Rundle sometimes thinks about the life he might have lived if he had not been dropped at Eden Park all those years ago, if he had not been left to stand on the driveway and cry each Sunday – visitors’ day – when no visitors came.

He is creative. He loves beauty. Would he have been an artist, or a lawyer, or an average Joe leading a contented, quiet life?

‘‘I don’t know whether all this,’’ and he points to his garden, ‘‘came because of the home.’’

‘‘I wouldn’t have had the drive I have. From all that horrific stuff comes the drive, and this is the life I have. Nana always said, you have to make the best out of what you’ve got.’’

44  - A Tale of Survival by Graham Rundle ($32.95) is published by Five Mile Press.

Reporter Joanne McCarthy won journalism's highest prize - the Gold Walkley - in 2013 for her series of articles on sex abuse that helped spark the royal commission.