An inquiry into how the Salvation Army responded to allegations of child abuse in four of its homes has heard how boys were beaten and raped.

A Salvation Army officer in Sydney would send boys who were in care to the homes of adults to be sexually assaulted, an inquiry has been told.

The officer, Captain Lawrence Wilson, was moved by the Salvation Army between four boys’ homes in Queensland and NSW between the late 1950s and 1977.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began its investigation at a public hearing in Sydney on Tuesday into what happened at those homes – the Alkira Home for Boys at Indooroopilly and the Endeavour Training Farm at Riverview, both in Queensland, as well as the Bexley Boys Home in Sydney and the Gill Memorial Home in Goulburn, NSW.

All the homes have since closed.

Mr Wilson, who died in 2008, began his career in 1956 when he was posted as an assistant officer to the Riverview farm.

He also worked as a welfare officer in NSW but left in 1965 following a severe reprimand for violence against a child.

Raymond Carlile, a former resident at Riverview, said on Tuesday he was eight when he was raped by Mr Wilson.

He and his younger brother, identified only as EG, had been sent to the farm because they were being beaten by their father.

Mr Carlile, who gave evidence by webcast from Gympie, Queensland, broke down as he told how he was tied by his ankles and suspended down a well because officers at the home thought he was trying to escape – although he had just fallen asleep in the bush after playing with other boys.

The brothers ate raw potatoes and onions because they were so hungry and drank water from a river polluted by animal carcasses, the commission heard.

Both men recalled Wilson being particularly brutal and told of beatings with straps, canes and planks until children bled.

EG was sent back to the home when he was a teenager and told the commission from the stand on Tuesday he witnessed one boy chained to a tree by the neck for a week.

Members of the advocacy group Care Leavers Australia Network, (CLAN) who were at the hearing, spontaneously applauded as both men gave evidence.

Simeon Beckett, counsel assisting the commission, said evidence would identify Mr Wilson as the most prolific of the alleged child sexual abusers in The Salvation Army Eastern Territory.

The commission has identified five officers of the Salvation Army about whom there are serious allegations – Russell Walker, John McIver, Donald Schultz, Victor Bennett (also deceased) and Mr Wilson.

Mr Beckett said Mr Wilson raped boys, forced them to have sex with one another, flogged them and threatened them with further punishment if they disclosed their treatment to anyone.

He said evidence is expected to detail “Wilson sending boys to the homes of adults to be sexually assaulted by them”.

The Salvation Army has made a number of ex-gratia payments to victims ranging from $50,000 to $125,000.

Kate Eastman, senior counsel representing the Salvation Army told the hearing: “We (the Salvation Army) are grieved that such things happened. We acknowledge that it was a failure of the greatest magnitude.”

This was a message repeated by the Salvation Army’s territorial commander for the eastern region, Commissioner James Condon, outside the hearing.

He also confirmed that Mr McIver is still an officer with the Salvation Army.

The hearing continues.