Trawling for Complaints Against the Military

My purpose here is to try to dampen down some of the near-hysteria that has been generated by politicians and the media over allegations of widespread and systemic sexual and other abuse, especially within the Catholic Church and the Australian Defence Force. At the outset, let it be understood that such abuse is intolerable and should be eliminated as far as is possible. Achieving that objective, however, will require a good deal more understanding and sobriety than has been apparent in the public discussion so far. It demands a recognition that evil acts happen but are committed by no more than a tiny minority of our society. Over-reaction can be more socially damaging than ignoring the evil acts.

The trigger for the newly established inquiry into abuse in the ADF was the disgusting event at the Defence Force Academy when sexual relations between two cadets were secretly filmed and broadcast to others. Worth recording is the fact, never denied, that the sexual relations themselves were consensual. The abuse element lay in the humiliating voyeurism involved in the broadcast to others. Responding to a complaint by the woman involved that the ADFA authorities were not treating the matter seriously, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, unwisely intervened in the administration of ADF discipline and made a series of inflammatory statements and decisions that made the situation worse.

Established by the minister, an inquiry by the legal firm DLA Piper concluded after trawling widely for complaints of abuse that there were more than 1000 incidents of sexual and other abuse within the ADF over a period of sixty years. These complaints were variously described in the media as “credible” or “plausible”, terms that my dictionary defines as having somewhat different meanings. As to what constitutes abuse, there are many possibilities but the risk, already manifest, is that abuse in many circumstances is frequently defined by the alleged victim.

The minister has now established a further inquiry into abuse in the ADF and continues to trawl for complaints, so the figure of 1000-plus is likely to grow. The inquiry will employ “up to fifty investigators” and is expected to take at least a year. Good luck! If fifty police and lawyers can resolve 1000 complaints in a year, it will be a miracle. It will more likely take half a century, if the complainants live that long. Reason and experience suggest that many of the complaints will be dismissed as lacking substance, credibility or evidence.

Yet to be defined is just what constitutes abuse, sexual or otherwise. Let me describe two incidents, one the subject of a complaint of abuse and the other only potentially so, at least in the eyes of the new puritans. The first occurred on an Army base where a small team was organising a barbecue. The male warrant officer in charge asked a female soldier to organise the rest of the personnel in setting up the event because, as he was reported as saying, “the boys will do anything for you”. She took that as a suggestion that she was sexually promiscuous and made a formal complaint of sexual harassment. Under the processes required by the human rights legislation, a formal investigation was launched. Eighteen months later, when I became aware of this case, no resolution had been achieved. In any normal military community, this matter could have been resolved by calling both before a commanding officer who would require explanations, apologies where necessary and an end to the nonsense. It was a classic case of ponderous and useless process overwhelming common sense.

The other incident occurred on board one of the Navy’s hard-working survey ships at sea in northern waters. It was Sunday and the dress rules were relaxed. On the bridge, a casually dressed junior female sailor was being tutored in a technical process by an experienced male petty officer. After some difficulty and patient coaching, she got the right answer and, in a fit of enthusiasm, threw her arms around the petty officer’s neck and kissed him. It was a joyous occasion but one clearly susceptible to misinterpretation by the new puritans.

Virtually anybody who has served in the military can describe incidents where he or she was personally abused, normally verbally, but sometimes with more subtlety. As I write, I can with difficulty recall three incidents that might conceivably be described as abuse during my own service many years ago. One, I confess, I deserved. Another involved a public humiliation by a senior officer from a different unit. The saving grace was that the bemused audience was clearly on my side and the correct and actual response—behind his back—was a shrug of the shoulders. The third involved a sustained denigration of my work that ended only when the senior officer concerned was posted away. This sort of thing is never pleasant in any context, and should not happen, but is not something to get excited about. It rankles only if the target allows it to rankle. What is certain is that no criminal offence occurred; the worst that can be said is that a clash of personalities underlay the situations. If that sort of clash is allowed to become a matter of extensive investigation on the demand of an alleged victim, with subsequent public condemnation of the perpetrator, any sort of social stability never mind organisational effectiveness will be destroyed.

More recently, the Prime Minister has announced a royal commission into sexual abuse of children in Australian institutions. This follows an earlier announcement that a commission would investigate all forms of abuse, sexual and otherwise, throughout society. Clearly, the Prime Minister was advised that such an inquiry would never end and would cost an immense amount of money. In her more recent statements, the Prime Minister has offered the view that individuals who claim to have been abused could be severely traumatised and has offered her sympathy. There is more than a suspicion here that the inquiry will become little more than a public witch-hunt aimed at particular religious organisations. Even more uncertain is whether such a commission can achieve anything of substance, given the various disclaimers about its objects.

In the case of sexual abuse as distinct from harassment, there are substantial legal difficulties in proving the fact of abuse. Normally such abuse occurs in private without witnesses. Lacking corroboration, any investigation will come to a dead end. Unless the offender confesses, the case depends upon the word of one person against that of another. Herein, I suspect, lies much of the failure of the ADF or church authorities to proceed with criminal or disciplinary charges against alleged offenders. From my own experience involved in investigations of alleged sexual offences in the navy, many allegations were “credible”, some were clearly malicious, all as I recall were lacking in any kind of corroboration and thus were not provable. Usually, all we could do was to get rid of the presumed offender from the Service if the complaint was credible. Perhaps some of those individuals are among the sources of complaints to the current inquiries.

In the current enthusiasm for punishing alleged offenders regardless of admissible evidence, publicity is being used. More seriously, the law is being modified to allow unsubstantiated allegations by different alleged victims to be accepted as corroborative evidence. What is happening is a shifting of the burden of proof from the complainant—or the Crown—to the alleged offender. Some years ago, I sat through the trial of a priest who was the subject of three separate complaints of sexual abuse including rape. All incidents were alleged to have occurred more than twenty years earlier, no supporting evidence was offered, and some elements of the complaints such as time and location were shown during cross-examination to be factually wrong. In an interminable three-day summing up, the judge held that such discrepancies were unimportant.

In the current political and media crusade, the Catholic Church and the Australian Defence Force seem to have been selected as targets. Both organisations share a number of characteristics that have served to promote them to Aunt Sally status. Let it be said here that both organisations have not handled issues of abuse as well as they perhaps should, although the evidence available tends to be selective and anecdotal, depending excessively upon the activities of outside organisations with not only an axe to grind but also seeking complaints with more than a hint of monetary compensation at the end of the process.

Generally speaking, the church and the ADF are hamstrung in the court of public opinion. Because they have a responsibility to both accuser and accused to conduct themselves according to proper process, they are necessarily discreet and must refuse to play the public relations game beloved of the interest groups and the media. They are guarded by a phalanx of legal advisers who necessarily advise strict caution if for no other reason than to ensure that any judicial proceedings are not tainted. The former Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, notes in his memoirs in respect of allegations of bullying in an elite Army unit that:

The bullying and assault was confined to a particular clique of more junior soldiers and some others who condoned or turned a blind eye. However individuals had made lurid claims concerning the extent of the problem within the unit. It made for nasty reading in the media. Members of Parliament took up the cause of several of the alleged victims. I was determined to find out exactly what happened, to fix the problem and protect the reputations of all those unfairly tarred with the same brush. It is a fact of life that some media representatives and politicians will seek persistently to imply that inappropriate behaviour and “red-neck” attitudes are institutionalised in and part of the culture of the Defence Force. That is obviously not the case. Pockets of bad behaviour and prejudiced attitudes do exist in the Defence Force—as they do throughout society—but the evidence is plain that in so many ways the Defence Force is a tolerant, fair-minded and hugely empathetic organisation—ask the East Timorese.

It may be fair to offer the suggestion that the church and the ADF are targeted because they constitute two organisations in Australian society with a strong moral ethos, an example as it were to the rest. That they have demonstrated flaws is certain and I would suggest that both feel considerable shame and dismay as a result. But it is well to recognise that there are other questionable agendas at work.

Both organisations stand apart from and are resistant to some of the brave-new-world political campaigns of the day. The church has always claimed a place in society that is separate from ordinary political activity, especially that of the social engineering kind. To the extent that it is involved, it claims—against the demands of the equal opportunity brigade—that its very extensive and irreplaceable contributions to Australian health, education and social welfare allow it to demand specific rights over employment and policies so as to ensure that these are consistent with the church’s religious mission.

For its part, the ADF is a national organisation subject naturally to the authority of the elected government for national defence. Its leaders are entitled and must put particular cases to the government but no ADF chief has ever defied the political leadership. But the ADF’s allegiance is to the nation, to the Australian people through the person of the Commander-in-Chief, the Governor-General, and not to any political grouping. Most politicians recognise this constitutional reality and are careful not to infringe upon it. In his reaction to the incident at the Defence Force Academy, Stephen Smith was treading dangerous ground. Perhaps he realised this eventually and was anxious to generate the smokescreen of the abuse inquiry to divert attention. By contrast, he seems to have used his authority as minister to conceal the results of the proper management of the incident by the ADF.

Elite organisations such as the church and the ADF have been targeted in the drive for equity—whatever that is. Normally thought to be a matter of equal employment opportunity, the enthusiasts seek to have equal numbers of women in the organisations regardless of reality. In Victoria, Christine Nixon as Chief Commissioner of Police pushed hard for equal numbers of women in the force, even to the extent of refusing qualified male applicants at a time of serious shortfalls in police numbers. In both the police services and the ADF, the equal-numbers push has failed even after decades of activity. Perhaps the reason is that even fewer women than men are interested in the job. Perhaps that is a temporary cultural phenomenon, but don’t bet on it. On the other hand, the thought is anathema to the equal-opportunity mob.

In the church, the activities of such peripheral and unofficial organisations such as Broken Rites have a strong media following. But an examination of their website suggests that their real agenda is to push for women priests and married priests in the church. They use the admitted failures of a small minority of priests and the church’s status as a recipient of public funds to support its health, education and social welfare activities to bring the church within the ambit of government and politics. There is a real risk that the current federal and state inquiries into abuses within the church will engender demands—contrary to the Constitution—for a greater degree of state intervention or even control of religious organisations.

One result of the DLA Piper inquiry into abuse in the ADF was the twofold allegation that there was within the force systemic connivance with incidents of abuse, and that many abusers might now be senior officers. In a classic case of guilt by association, every senior officer, past and present, in the ADF is now suspected of being some sort of undefined abuser. What was little more than an ill-considered aside was beaten up in the media as fact allegedly backed by the inquiry. But then, the ADF is a popular target because it must rely upon its minister to defend it.

The DLA Piper review’s initial report of 847 (now grown to more than 1000) “plausible” complaints over a sixty-year period attracted prominent media commentary, most of it condemnatory. As usual with the media, little thought was given to the context. Over that sixty-year period, the average size of the ADF at any time was around 70,000 including reserves (100,000 during the Vietnam War). Assuming an average length of service of ten years, it suggests that almost half a million Australians served in the ADF during those sixty years. In that context, 1000 complaints of some kind of ill-defined abuse that have been actively sought hardly warrant a conclusion that abuse of any kind, sexual or otherwise, is endemic in the ADF.

During the public debate, the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, was trotted out to apologise for any abuse that has ever occurred in the ADF. Like so many other public apologies for various crimes and misdemeanours, it means nothing. Like the constant demand of Japan to apologise for its role in the Second World War, the regular Japanese apologies by people who at most were children at the time mean nothing. General Hurley cannot speak for each member of the ADF today, much less those past generations covered by the sixty-year coverage of the DLA Piper inquiry; he can only speak for himself and, for anybody who knows the general, the idea of his being an abuser is farcical. Moreover, the ADF as an entity cannot apologise for something it did not do.

In the case of the church, similar apologies from the Pope through a collection of bishops have been given extensive publicity. They are no more valid than General Hurley’s. Too often, as with Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the so-called “Stolen Generations”, they provide a hook upon which to hang demands for compensation. Fortunately, our judicial system still requires a standard of proof beyond meaningless breast-beating. Unlike the government, the church tends to pay claimants to go away but no one seems to have asked the question whether monetary payment and a faux apology can truly compensate for the sometimes abominable abuse of the victims.

In the public discussion of the DLA Piper inquiry, much was made of the potential for, rather than cases of, actual abuse in past years among young people that were recruited. The Navy traditionally employed thirteen-year-olds as cadet officers and fifteen-year-olds as junior recruits. All services employed young people as apprentices. All of these teenagers spent their early years in the military at school. They were not in the category of child soldiers because in Australia they could not be employed as other than school or trade-based trainees until they turned twenty. Their recruitment was terminated in the 1980s under pressure from the United Nations’ campaign against child soldiers that were such a problem in all the African wars and insurgencies of the period. There is no evidence that abuse was a problem in these categories in Australia, if only because their instructors and teachers were carefully selected for their suitability.     

Given the manner in which this whole question of abuse in the ADF and the Catholic Church is being mishandled, one is entitled to wonder who the real abusers are. Are they simply stupid or do they have another as yet undisclosed agenda?

As a final comment, the inquiry into abuse in the ADF has attracted extensive coverage from the specialist defence editors and reporters of the media. That in itself is not unreasonable, but a more investigative approach might have uncovered more of the facts and analysis included in this article. What has been disappointing is the almost total lack of analysis and coverage given to the government’s massive cutbacks in defence funding. One is entitled to wonder what those journalists do to earn their daily bread; after all the ADF is supposed to be an effective national defence force rather than some squeaky-clean exemplar of niceness.

Michael O’Connor is a former naval officer and was for twenty-two years executive director of the Australia Defence Association. He apologises to any reader offended by this article.

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