Day of reckoning looms for rapists in Australian military

Australia's Defence Minister warns of full inquiry if judge's probe fails to expose now high-ranking offenders

Evidence of a culture of sexual abuse was uncovered in the Australian Defence Force by a major inquiry published in 1998. Photo / NZPA
Evidence of a culture of sexual abuse was uncovered in the Australian Defence Force by a major inquiry published in 1998. Photo / NZPA

Defence Minister Stephen Smith this week formally apologised to victims of the sexual abuse.

Somewhere in Australia's sprawling defence organisation could be a small clique of officers who have risen through the ranks even though they raped female colleagues as cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy in the mid-1990s.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has referred to the crimes as the "ADFA 24" - 15 cases of rape and nine of sexual assault allegedly committed by academy cadets between 1994 and March 1998.

The actual number of offences may have been higher.

The matter was never properly investigated and it's quite possible some of the perpetrators remain in the defence force, likely at middle or senior ranks.

This is Defence's dirty secret.

Mr Smith says if retired judge and former general Len Roberts-Smith, QC, can't get to the bottom of it with his new taskforce, he will initiate a royal commission with the powers to compel witnesses to talk or go to jail.

Mr Smith has also singled out the former navy training centre HMAS Leeuwin for possible royal commission attention if the taskforce can't shed sufficient light on the institutionalised brutality inflicted on boy sailors as young as 13 in the period 1960-84.

All this emerged this week when the Government announced the long-awaited response to the report of law firm DLA Piper, itself prompted by a contemporary case of misconduct at the academy.

The so-called "Skype scandal" occurred on March 28 last year, when two first-year cadets engaged in consensual sex. Unknown to the young woman, her partner had videoed their liaison, streaming the imagery via the internet to a computer in another room where four male cadets were watching.

Mr Smith responded to the community outrage by commissioning a series of reviews of defence culture.

A very large number of people came forward, recounting their own experiences of abuse in the defence force, and the minister commissioned DLA Piper to collate these accounts and suggest a way forward.

This week, Mr Smith and Defence Force chief General David Hurley formally apologised to the victims of abuse.

The Roberts-Smith taskforce will now examine some 750 individual allegations of abuse, with victims able to receive up to A$50,000 ($63,370) compensation.

None of this will be conducted in public, although Justice Roberts-Smith will present a report at the end of the year which is likely to be made public.

Parts could become very public if those who've committed past abuse, possibly even senior officers, are arrested and face the courts.

Mr Smith said with his agreement, General Hurley had directed the defence force investigative service to investigate the ADFA 24 cases.

"[The investigators] have now completed the work that they've been able to complete. That work will now be made available firstly to the relevant state or federal police or prosecutorial authorities.

"That same work will be made available to Len Roberts-Smith," Mr Smith said.

It's not as though defence culture hasn't been regularly and comprehensively investigated. Much work has been devoted to the academy, a campus of the University of New South Wales opened in 1986 and attended by army, navy and air force cadets.

A seminal study by Bronwen Grey, director of the then Defence Equity Organisation, was released in 1998 pointing to a culture of abuse with a high level of sexual assault. At its best, she said, the academy turned out extremely impressive young officers.

"Unfortunately, some cadets at the defence academy are dishonest, emotionally stunted, insensitive bullies and cheats," she wrote.

Defence took this on the chin and embarked on a programme of reform across the entire organisation.

A report by sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick found the academy of 2011 to be a vastly improved institution compared with the 1990s.

During Ms Grey's inquiries there in the 1990s, she came across various allegations of rape and sexual abuse committed by senior cadets against younger females.

In parallel with her inquiries, a team headed by defence lawyer Lieutenant Colonel Ken Northwood investigated specific allegations.

The little that has been revealed is chilling.

"It is likely that one girl has been raped three times. It is likely that two former cadets graduated at the end of 1997 have each raped three female cadets," says an extract of the investigation team's findings printed in the DLA Piper report.

There's more. An academy chaplain said he had counselled six to 10 female cadets who were raped in 1997.

The investigation team found a selection of complaint documents housed in a filing cabinet referred to as the "chamber of horrors". There was even an academy "survivors group" of sexual assault victims.

Only two cases ever went to trial. DLA Piper cites a selection of reasons why so little happened - a general reluctance of cadets to complain, coupled with abysmal complaint-handling processes, seriously flawed Defence investigative capabilities and the belief that sexual offences were a matter for civil authorities.

DLA Piper said the perpetrators, if still in the defence force, were likely now to be in important leadership and management roles, with the knowledge that sooner or later their past actions might be revealed.

"If that did occur, that could damage the reputation of the ADF. And the higher they have risen the greater the damage will be," their report said.

Many passed through Australian Defence Force officer training institutions in eras when a far harsher culture prevailed.

One is Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who last year acknowledged he was one of many involved in bastardisation at the Royal Military College in the early 1980s.

DLA Piper said the perpetrators of significant abuse couldn't expect much sympathy.

"Most members of the community would regard opportunistic sexual assaults by male perpetrators on fellow cadets as reprehensible and cowardly and would be inclined to judge the perpetrator accordingly, no matter that the assault occurred a quarter of a century ago," it said.

For some still in the defence force, it appears a reckoning may be looming.

"There are some people over here who are absolutely shitting themselves," observed one defence insider.

- AAP

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