(CNN) -- An Australian commission is hearing allegations of the physical and sexual abuse of boys in the care of the Salvation Army over several decades.
The shocking treatment at some of the organization's boys homes included rape, beatings, locking boys in cages and, in one case, forcing a boy to eat his own vomit, the commission was told Tuesday.
The public hearings, taking place in Sydney, are part of a wide-ranging investigation into how Australian institutions responded to cases of child sexual abuse.
The current phase is focusing on the Salvation Army's response to abuse that took place in four of its boys homes in the states of Queensland and New South Wales in the 1960s and '70s.
'The greatest failure'
The Salvation Army isn't denying the abuse, which came to light previously. It has apologized, admitting that hundreds of boys suffered in its care.
"This hearing will bring to light the greatest failure in the history of the Salvation Army in Australia," the group's counsel, Kate Eastmann, said Tuesday, according to CNN affiliate Seven Network.
The four homes at the heart of the hearings were identified by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as those where the most complaints of abuse were made to The Salvation Army.
The homes -- Indooroopilly and Riverview in Queensland, and Bexley and Gill in New South Wales -- were all closed by 1980.
Punishment and abuse
The commission on Tuesday heard accounts of unusually brutal or humiliating punishment, including a case at one home in which two boys were locked in cages on a verandah.
"Other forms of punishment included sweeping the playground with a toothbrush, cleaning 50 pairs of shoes, cleaning the pigeon cage and on one occasion, forcing a boy to eat his own vomit," said Simeon Beckett, the counsel assisting the commission.
Allegations of widespread sexual assault carried out by Salvation Army officers and some of the boys under their supervision were also outlined.
At the Bexley home, members of the public also abused boys, Beckett said, possibly with the knowledge of Salvation Army staff members.
"These persons had access to the boys' dormitories at night and would access the dormitories and sexually assault the boys," he said.
Evidence suggests that many of the boys didn't complain about the sexual abuse at the time because they feared punishment or retribution, Beckett said.
Those who did complain weren't generally taken seriously.
"In cases when abuse was reported, the boys were often disbelieved and were punished for reporting what were characterized as 'lies,'" he told the hearing.
Some of the former residents of the homes who are due to testify over the course of the hearings are expected to say that "even when they ran away from the homes and told police of what had occurred, they were returned to the home where they were then physically punished," Beckett said.
Other witnesses due to appear before the commission include staff members from the homes and officials from law enforcement, the government and the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army has made payments to many of the victims of the abuses.
"The Salvation Army feels deep regret for every instance of child sexual abuse inflicted on children in our care," the organization says in a statement on its website. "We are grieved that such things happened. We acknowledge that it was a failure of the greatest magnitude."
The investigation into the Salvation Army response is the fifth set of public hearings carried out by the Royal Commission. The previous hearings looked into the responses to sexual abuse allegations by children's organizations and churches.