Soaring historical sexual and physical abuse claims in Defence

Reports of historical physical and sexual abuse in Australia’s defence forces have skyrocketed to almost 1000 in the last year as a scheme established to pay reparations to survivors nears its end.

Alleged abuse in the 2000s at several army bases makes up an increasing number of cases reported in the last financial year but training bases where inquiries have unearthed historical allegations of rape and sexualised hazing of junior recruits still account for the largest number of claims overall.

Since late 2016, the Defence Force Ombudsman has been charged with receiving confidential reports of serious physical and sexual abuse in the ADF where survivors feel unable to use the military’s internal processes, and recommending reparations payments of up to $50,000.

Cases in each full financial year have risen slowly but hovered around 500 until last year. But the reports almost doubled to 953 cases in 2020-21, which the ombudsman attributed to the scheme’s originally scheduled end date of June 2021, more advertising, and greater awareness of it as a result.

In all, there were 2554 claims of abuse made to the scheme from its inception to June this year.

Claimants now have until June next year to either submit a claim, which can also be for serious bullying or harassment, or say they plan to put one in by the middle of 2023.

In 2016, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard of the worst forms of abuse in the ADF, including recruits dragged out of bed and repeatedly raped. Others were subjected to “blackballing”, in which a hard brush was used to smear boot polish on the victim’s genital area.

A Defence spokesperson said the scheme provided a safe, sensitive, independent and external way of reporting historical abuse.

“The Defence Reparation Scheme is open to individuals who suffered serious abuse on or before 30 June 2014,” the spokesperson said, acknowledging that reports were rising. “All reports of abuse accepted through this scheme are therefore historic.”

“The Defence Reparation Scheme includes reparation payments to victims and provides the opportunity for victims to speak with senior members of the Australian Defence Force about their experience of abuse.”

As of the middle of this year, Defence had accepted 1006 recommendations for payouts, the vast majority of those made to it, totalling $42 million. Just over 100 applications were waiting for Defence to consider payments.

Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James said it needed to be remembered that Defence is the third-largest employer in the country and is different from many other workplaces.

“It’s also one of the few workforces in the country that’s predominantly very young. Half of the Defence Force is under the age of 25,” he said.

“The other aspect you have to take into account is that not too many other industries make you live together collectively 24 hours of a day.”

Mr James said the complaints vary in nature and seriousness. He said the intense environment of living together “does create stresses, that if not watched closely can cause abuse particularly among young people doing stupid things.”

If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counselling or support, contact the Defence All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

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