Smith flags Royal Commission into Defence sex abuse claims
15th June 2012
Updated 19th June 2012
Allegations of systemic abuse within the defence force and claims that perpetrators now hold senior positions are "nonsense", according to the Australia Defence Association, but it is backing the idea of a Royal Commission to "clear the air".
The ABC has obtained the uncensored summary of abuse allegations that was prepared by law firm DLA Piper following the so-called 'Skype' sex scandal last year.
The report says 847 people came forward with "plausible" allegations of abuse - some involve multiple claims - adding that "there is a risk that those perpetrators now hold middle and senior 'management' positions within the Australian Defence Force".
Its public release has prompted Defence Minister Stephen Smith to flag the possibility of setting up a Royal Commission to examine the issue in more detail.
Australia Defence Association spokesman Neil James says the inquiry is needed to "establish the facts and stop people over-reacting".
"The ADA's never denied that there was serious abuses in the defence force, but a lot of the reporting over the last 24 hours hasn't been accurate and we think a Royal Commission will now be required to clear the air and get the facts out," Mr James has told ABC NewsRadio.
"The idea that there's some cover up 'cause the abusers are now at high rank in the defence force is nonsense, and I think people need to start putting this into some form of chronological perspective.
"The defence force is a large organisation - 100,000 people - it's a 60 year period, there's obviously going to be terrible stories as there are in any other large Australian organisation over that period and a Royal Commission is the appropriate way to work out just exactly what happened, why, and whether anyone responsible is still serving." he said.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has described the allegations as "deeply distressing", and says the Government is now working through the "full range" of options to respond to the report.
"A Royal Commission for this matter - or at least for some of the more serious allegations - is one option," Ms Gillard said. "It's one amongst a range of options that Government will consider and work through."
But the prospect of another investigation does not have universal support.
A military compensation lawyer acting on behalf of many alleged victims of abuse says most people just want recognition of the abuse they suffered.
"A public apology delivered by the Prime Minister or Defence Minister, or a personal apology delivered by a high level office holder can be the first step in closing this ugly chapter of our defence history," Brian Briggs has written on The Drum.
And he has told ABC News Breakfast that the money allocated for a Royal Commission would be better spent on compensating those who suffered abuse.
"I don't think money should be spent on lawyers and another delay and two more years and $50 million to $100 million being invested in a Royal Commission," Mr Briggs said.
"The money would be better spent actually compensating the victims in my opinion," Mr Briggs said. "They're the people who are the real story here - they're at the heart of the story."
he Government is not ruling out offering compensation to victims of abuse.
Mr Briggs says many alleged victims of abuse did not speak to the Government-commissioned inquiry by DLA Piper, but instead came forward to law firms such as his.
He says some of his clients have provided the names of alleged perpetrators, and the list includes "senior members" of the defence force.
"These are untested allegations, but the detail that I've seen suggests that there are definitely middle senior management in the defence forces who were perpetrators who are now higher up the chain of command," Mr Briggs said.
While the edited version of the report's summary had a single line which noted the earliest reported abuse was in 1951 on a 13-year-old boy, the full story is much more disturbing and shows abuse of children was widespread.
"It is certain that many boys were subjected to serious sexual and physical assault and other serious abuse while they were in the ADF from the 1950s through to the 1970s - and possibly into the 1980s," the report said.
The Navy recruited 13-year-olds until the late 1960s, and until the 1980s all three services recruited boys as young as 15.
In that time the report said: "The ADF and successive Australian governments failed to put in place adequate protections to take into account the special needs and vulnerability of boys of 13, 14, 15 and 16 years of age to protect them from other boys and from adults in the ADF".
"John" was one of the 847 people who lodged a complaint.
"In 1988 I was in the air force and based in Victoria. I was raped by a 50-year-old corporal," he said.
"He also raped and sexually abused other minors in the air force at the time. There was an investigation, I was the whistleblower regarding the incidents.
"He was discharged. ... and consequently - I was 18 at the time - they also wanted me discharged."
Like many of the other boys, young men and women who were abused, John has gone onto suffer lifelong torment.
"The past 25 years basically I've been in institutions and hospitals, psychiatric wards," he said.
"It's been hard to trust people, relationships, [I've] never been married, really haven't had a job in 25 years."
The review also received complaints from men and women who had been recruited as young adults.
"It is certain that many young males and females have been subjected to serious sexual and physical assault and other serious abuse while they were in the ADF from the 1950s at least into the 21st century," the report said.
One of the most disturbing claims made in the report is that many of those abused went on to perpetrate similar acts against recruits who followed.
It cites the former junior recruit training base in Fremantle - HMAS Leeuwin - as one of the worst incubators of abuse in the late 1960s and early 70s.
And of a chapter in the review that remain secret it says: "The examples selected are horrific. Because they give an indication of the sort of abuse that occurred".
What happened at HMAS Leeuwin is no secret to Barry Heffernan of the Vietnam Veteran's Association.
"HMAS Leeuwin was a common denominator and they had the various levels of peer pressure and it started at the bottom," he said.
"They were victims so they decided to victimise someone else. I suppose it's a law of the jungle like that and to young kids, naive off the streets, 15 years old, they fear for their lives.
"What a hell of a way to live a life and begin life like that."
Lawyer Brian Briggs acts for many victims of abuse, and is not surprised by the review's findings.
"There's been a breach in the duty of care that was owed to these young members and service personnel," he said.
The review finds that abuse persisted in Defence despite multiple reports and attempts to end it, and that the military culture itself gave rise to the abuse.
"[There were] no adverse consequences for abusive behaviour... a culture discouraging reporting of abuse... and the chain of command structure in Defence lends itself to superiors abusing juniors with impunity," the report said.
Mr Heffernan agrees senior staff turned a blind eye to the abuse.
"I know one girl who was raped and she told her CO about it and he just said 'that's how it goes darl', and she has worn that ever since and turned to alcohol and all the rest of it," he said.
The report says there appears to have been no appetite in Defence to prosecute abusers and many of those involved likely remain within the ADF.
"Defence records show very little evidence that perpetrators had been called to account," it says.
"There is a risk that those perpetrators now hold middle and senior management positions within the ADF... and there is a risk that those who witnessed abuse and did not report what they witnessed now hold middle and senior management positions within the ADF."
Mr Briggs believes there is little likelihood that anyone will be held to account.
"I don't think that they could go back, although a lot of the inquiries and the complainants that I saw could name names, and there were people who went on to become senior officers that were the perpetrators," he said.
"It would have to involve either criminal proceedings - now you're talking years and years and years have gone by - so I don't think prosecutors would be too interested in taking people to task."
John has not even been told if his submission has been been deemed by the review as plausible.
"People should be notified instead of basically sitting back and worrying and stressing more because it's bringing up the past," he said.
And he fears there is little hope of real change in Defence.
"I'd only believe it if it actually happened to the Minister himself, if he had a son or a daughter and they were in the Defence Forces then something might change," he said.
Mr Briggs says there is evidence the culture of abuse is continuing to this day.
"On my desk [I've got a claim from], a member in the army, currently serving, who was subjected to abuse, bullying, harassment," he said.
"It's going on, I've got inquiries as recent as today going back days, weeks.
"It's still going on."