Dozens of alleged rapes and indecent assaults against boys at a Salvation Army home in southern Sydney that were reported to police years later never came to court because of the victims' fading memories and investigators' reluctance to "fish for victims", the royal commission into child abuse has heard.
The revelations came as the commission's investigation into Salvation Army boys' homes in NSW and Queensland focuses on the Bexley Boys' Home, operated from 1915 to 1979.
The commission has heard a series of alarming allegations of abuse at the home, much of it involving Captain Lawrence Wilson, who was accused not only of raping and assaulting the boys, but of sending them to the homes of other Salvation Army officers to be raped and assaulted.
One boy, referred to as FV, was allegedly sent by Captain Wilson to the home of a Salvation Army couple. The woman forced him to have sex with her and then the man indecently assaulted him.
When the boy returned and told Captain Wilson what had happened, he was told the couple were "good people" and caned approximately 18 times.
He was subsequently sent to a poultry farm and the home of two women and was allegedly assaulted on both occasions.
FV reported the abuse to police years later, but was unable to pinpoint the exact addresses or identities of those who abused him and, as a result, no charges were laid in relation to the allegations, either against them or Captain Wilson.
The commission heard that Mr Wilson, the most prolific of the alleged abusers under investigation, was eventually charged with 19 separate offences for his behaviour at Bexley, including buggery, common assault and indecent assault.
But in May 1997, he was tried and acquitted, much to the "surprise" of the Salvation Army, the commission heard.
A police officer closely connected to the investigations into crimes at Bexley, Detective Inspector Rick John Cunningham, told the commission on Thursday that police were unable to lay charges regarding many other sexual abuse allegations made in the 1990s because victims were unable to specify when the alleged offending occurred.
"Based on my own experience ... it is often difficult for victims to pinpoint dates," Inspector Cunningham said.
"The DPP require that there is at least a reasonable time period to put in relation to the allegation."
But there was also an apparent unwillingness by police to go "fishing" for victims.
"I understand that [senior Salvation Army Officer] Major Farthing wrote to the NSW Police setting out certain allegations against Captain Wilson. Is that right?" counsel assisting the commission, Simeon Beckett, asked.
"That's correct," the inspector replied.
"The response was that the police force wouldn't investigate the allegations in the absence of reports to police from the complainants?"
"I have seen that, yes," the officer replied. "I find it difficult to speak on behalf of the police who made that decision ... But it's not generally good practice to go fishing for victims. It's considered more appropriate for people who wish to complain to come forward."
But the commission heard that, in the case of another alleged perpetrator, a man identified as X17, the Office of the Director of Prosecutions elected not to pursue charges, not because of a lack of evidence, but the officer's poor health.
The commission heard that, more than 15 years later, X17 remains alive, his health having improved considerably.
No charges have been laid in the intervening period.
The commission is focusing on the alleged abuse inflicted by Lawrence Wilson, X17, Victor Bennett, John McIver and Donald Schultz on boys aged from about six to about 17.
Three of the five officers being examined are still alive - Mr McIver, Mr Schultz and X17.
They deny the allegations against them.
The hearing continues.