Australia apologizes for sex abuse in military

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Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith. AFP FILE PHOTO

SYDNEY – The Australian government on Monday made a parliamentary apology to victims of abuse in the military and set up a compensation fund after hundreds of claims of rape and sexual assault.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith also established an independent taskforce to individually assess each allegation uncovered by a report commissioned by the government last year.

The taskforce will be able to refer appropriate matters to police for formal criminal investigation, while offering victims help in accessing counselling, health, and other services.

“Young men and women have endured sexual, physical or mental abuse from their colleagues which is not acceptable and does not reflect the values of a modern, diverse, tolerant Australian society,” Smith told parliament.

“Such experiences have had a lasting, serious, traumatic and adverse impact on the people who have experienced them.”

In his statement, Smith lashed out at senior military figures who occupied positions of trust and who “abused that trust through their behaviour, including through the turning of a blind eye”.

“Today’s men and women of the Australian Defence Force or the Department of Defense who have suffered sexual or other abuse, on behalf of the government I say sorry,” he said.

“You should never have experienced this abuse. Again, I say sorry.”

A capped compensation fund was set up with the taskforce, headed by former West Australian Supreme Court judge Len Roberts-Smith, to determine who qualifies for payouts of up to Aus$50,000 (US$52,000).

The move follows an independent report sparked by the so-called Skype scandal in 2011, when footage of a young male recruit having sex with a female classmate was streamed online to cadets in another room without her knowledge.

The report detailed 24 allegations of rape that never went to trial, among more than 1,000 claims of sexual or other abuse from the 1950s to the present day, involving both men and women.

As well as the rape claims, it said that “from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, many boys aged 13, 14, 15 and 16 years of age in the defence force suffered abuse including serious sexual and other physical abuse”.

Until the 1960s, boys as young as 13 were recruited into the Navy, while 15-year-olds were accepted into the Army, Navy and Air Force up until the early 1980s. The minimum enlisting age is now 17.

The report also highlighted brutal initiation ceremonies and depicted a culture in the military of covering up, failing to punish perpetrators and hostility towards victims who complained.

Smith said the Defense Force would bear the financial burden of any compensation, with military and government officials “committed to zero tolerance in the future”.

“Acknowledging the past and taking responsibility for it is only the first step,” he said.

“We must ensure that such abuse can never be tolerated again.”

“The Australian Defense Force, Department of Defense and their leadership are committed to change and to taking action to protect the young men and women in their care.”

Defense Force chief General David Hurley, who has vowed that any serving personnel found guilty of abuse will be brought to justice, was due to make a separate statement later Monday.

Originally posted at 09:02 pm | Monday, Nov. 26, 2012

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