Taskforce reveals extent of brutal abuse at Australia naval base

SYDNEY (AFP) - Hundreds of teenage boys suffered brutal physical and sexual abuse at an Australian naval base, a taskforce said on Wednesday, as it slammed the Defence Force for failing to protect them.

The Defence Abuse Response Taskforce said the shocking and systemic treatment at HMAS Leeuwin between 1960 and 1984 was "much more serious and widespread" than previously acknowledged.

"The pattern of abuse at HMAS Leeuwin was such that Defence knew or ought to have known that abuse was occurring, yet failed to take appropriate action to stop it," said the taskforce head, retired judge Len Roberts-Smith.

A national inquiry into abuse in the Australian military was set up by the government in 2012 after the service was rocked by claims of rape and sexual assault, a culture of cover-ups and a failure to punish perpetrators.

The abuse at Western Australia's Leeuwin navy base, which has since closed, was considered so serious that a separate report was instigated to deal with more than 200 complaints from junior recruits, many of whom were 15 or 16 at the time.

It heard that they suffered brutal assaults, including rape and sodomy, often during humiliating initiation ceremonies at the instruction of senior sailors. Victims told of being stripped and scrubbed with brushes so hard it left them bleeding. Others were held down while an object such as a mop handle was forced into their anus or a vacuum cleaner forcibly applied to their genitals.

Many of them told the inquiry the experiences ruined their later lives and careers, with some blaming it for bouts of depression, broken relationships, and alcohol and substance abuse.

"Defence was responsible for a large number of boys at HMAS Leeuwin," said Mr Roberts-Smith. "It was responsible for ensuring that HMAS Leeuwin was an establishment at which the care and protection of these children was enabled and encouraged, rather than one where they were able to be abused.

"However, on many occasions at HMAS Leeuwin, Defence failed in this responsibility."

Defence Force chief General David Hurley said the matters reported were abhorrent. "It goes without saying that abuses, such as those recorded, should not have occurred and have no place in the Australian Defence Force," he said in a statement.

Navy chief Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs insisted the military today was a vastly different organisation. "To those individuals affected, I offer the reassurance that such behaviour is not tolerated and is dealt with swiftly in today's Navy," he said. "This sort of behaviour is inconsistent with our values and the behaviours we all try to live by - it damages our people and our effectiveness to work together and achieve our mission."