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Payouts: The Salvation Army has spent nearly $20 million so far settling claims. Photo: Gabriele Charotte

The Salvation Army has had 473 complaints about abuse in its Victorian children's homes, has spent nearly $20 million so far settling them and could give no explanation of how predators got away with it for so long - but it denied there had been a culture of abuse.

The Salvation Army had almost no records of children in the homes but had not tried to hide, shred or dispose of them, Captain Malcolm Roberts told the Victorian inquiry into how the church handled child sexual abuse.

The last homes closed in the 1980s and the church dealt with 35,000 children, he said.

Captain Roberts, the territorial legal secretary, could not say if any complaints had been referred to police but he thought not because every victim came to the church as an adult who could make his or her own decision. The church would help them.

In a closing statement, Captain Roberts said the Salvation Army was ashamed at the treatment many children received: ''We are deeply sorry.''

He said the church accepted almost every complaint - apart from making basic checks, such as that the victim was in a home at the time claimed - to make the process non-adversarial for victims.

The $20 million spent so far included legal fees but 87 cases were still being resolved.

The parliamentary committee members pursued issues with sustained, determined questioning well beyond the allotted time.

Nick Wakeling asked how a now-dead brigadier had been able to abuse so many girls at Camberwell and elsewhere. Captain Roberts said he had no explanation.

Mr Wakeling: ''Was the abuse endemic?''

Captain Roberts: ''Endemic is not the correct word.''

Mr Wakeling: ''There were serious deficiencies and a failure of culture. Would you agree?''

Captain Roberts: ''The Salvation Army as a movement has the highest standards. There may have been those who failed to reach those standards but I don't believe it was a cultural issue.''

Frank McGuire asked why the church had sent its legal officer and not the territorial commander. He was sick and about to retire, Captain Roberts replied.

David O'Brien warned Captain Roberts ''pride goes before a fall'' over his confidence that necessary lessons had been learnt without any systematic investigation.

Mr O'Brien suggested the church should hold an internal investigation into one or more complaints before it was ordered to by the committee.

He commended the church for not relying on vicarious liability or the Ellis defence used by the Catholic Church to avoid compensating victims.

Bronwyn Halfpenny said 663 children had run away from the Bayswater boys' home, far more than the next-highest, 51 at the Brunswick girls' home, but Captain Roberts said this did not raise questions about what was going on because the youth training centre functioned as a semi-secure prison for older boys.

Ms Halfpenny cited a judge who said there had been a nest of paedophiles at Bayswater, who were allowed to take boys away to be abused and tortured.

Captain Roberts replied he could not comment; the judge had seen the evidence but there was no evidence from convictions of a paedophile ring.

Ms Halfpenny asked if the church had a duty of care to those whose lives had been ruined by sexual abuse.

Captain Roberts said the church made the process as painless as possible and took such factors into account in determining compensation.

The committee also grilled Jehovah's Witnesses Terrence O'Brien and Rachel van Witsen about when the church might refer child sexual abuse to police.

Mr O'Brien, the director of the society, said if reporting was made mandatory the church would comply.

He said if abuse was reported to elders, they had to inform the church's legal section before anything else. It was the victim or family's choice whether to go to police.