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Australia Investigates Horrific Abuse of Over 200 Teenage Boys at Navy Base

A devastating new report uncovers systematic bullying and sexual exploitation at an Australian navy base between 1960 and 1984.
Photo by Steve Marr

Like many other nations, Australia is continuing to uncover horrendous cases of child abuse from its not-to-distant past.

On June 18, the Australian government's Defense Abuse Response Taskforce (DART) released a report regarding HMAS Leeuwin, a naval shore base located in Freemantle, Western Australia. The document is thorough, devastating, and more proof that cruelty and sexual exploitation is at its worst when it's institutionalized.


The report is based on the personal accounts of over 200 complainants who were taught at the facility during the years it functioned as a Junior Recruit Training Establishment, between 1960 and 1984. While 1965 to 1971 saw the highest levels, some form of abuse occurred almost every year.

Staff shortages, caused in part by a 1957 decision to discontinue providing conscripts to the Australian Navy under the National Service Act, were probably a major reason why the scheme of training younger boys as "general entry sailors," first terminated in 1926, was reintroduced at the end of the 1950s.

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HMAS Leeuwin was responsible for the majority of the training under the scheme. It started out taking in approximately 300 boys aged 13-17 per year. At times that intake was doubled to around 600 boys in total. These two facts, the central importance of the establishment in regards to staffing the navy and the navy's relative lack of experience in running a training school for teenage boys, help explain why Leeuwin became what it did and why the defense administration was so unwilling and/or ill-equipped to handle it.

'I was young and naïve and did not have the capacity to differentiate between "discipline" and "abuse."'

The culture of abuse at Leeuwin seems to have begun in the first years of recruitment, with abuse inflicted by staff then being adopted by recruits. A complainant from one of the early intakes stated: "Without a doubt that developing culture was a direct result of the mindless brutality inflicted by some staff. Victimization was the order of the day."


Much of the abuse was justified as discipline, as another recruit noted: "I was young and naïve and did not have the capacity to differentiate between 'discipline' and 'abuse.'" There was no official system for discipline to be carried out by "top shits" (senior recruits) on more junior recruits but it was encouraged by unofficial policies, like punishing a whole squad for the infractions of a single member, and turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of that member after hours.

"We were told by our instructor that the Grub [a term that describes one of the most junior members of Leeuwin's informal hierarchy] was a danger to us all as he would bring down the standard of the intake, infect us all with his filthy ways and if he ever got to go to sea, he would ruin a ship with his dirty ways. We were to be ever-vigilant, find the Grub and expose him… There is no way that his screaming and the cheering of the mob was not heard by the instructor downstairs but that was the way at Leeuwin."

A cycle where senior recruits would abuse those who were more junior meant that Leeuwin's abusive culture, instituted and continuously reinforced by some staff members, would continue as long as the establishment operated. As a recruit stated: "Many of the JRs [junior recruits] in my intake began to bastardize [abusively haze) the next intake. As senior recruits, they carried out all the crimes that had been done to them on the next lot."


'"Sadie-ing" was the practice of restraining a recruit and "forcibly applying a vacuum cleaner hose to his genitals and turning the power on."'

Bullying and physical violence made up the majority of the cruelty at Leeuwin. One sickly JR was forced to run, holding a rifle over his head, until he passed out. The more ritualized and common abuse is outlined in the report's glossary. This includes "scrubbing," where a recruit was forcibly scrubbed with steel wool, hard-bristled brooms, and other abrasive cleaning products past the point of bleeding.

Then 49 percent of the complainants in the DART report were subjected to at least some sexual abuse. "Sadie-ing" was the practice of restraining a recruit and "forcibly applying a vacuum cleaner hose to his genitals and turning the power on."

One of the more graphic examples of a sexual assault involved a recruit being pushed to his knees in front of a urinal and then gagged. He goes on to say: "The gag was in fact human feces that had been wrapped up in toilet paper. I bit into this gag, which then had the effect of making me vomit. Whilst I was being held in this position l was urinated upon twice and someone also ejaculated sperm upon my face. At about the same time this was happening my navy issue pajamas pants were pulled down from my buttocks area and a broom handle or something hard and round and about… that size was inserted in my rectum and worked in and out several times. I continued to struggle all the time."


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The sexual abuse by recruits may have been modeled on the actions of some of the more predatory staff. One such man, identified by the report simply as a Leading Seamen, targeted a boy from his first day at Leeuwin and subjected him to ever more extreme sexual violence. It began with pornographic images and escalated to many acts of rape.

Abuse by officers goes some way to explaining why victims were reluctant to tell people what was happening. One complainant made the point that while there was a way to talk to higher ups about problems, that among the boys, "There was a culture where if you got bashed, you sucked it up and didn't report it to anyone or you would get bashed even more." Those who talked became targets and were referred to as "jacks."

This was conducive to junior recruits becoming perpetrators when they ascended to higher levels. As one complainant explained: "We unanimously agree, from our first night as top-shit, we'll exert our authority by sheer vicious force… because we've earned it big time." The report also dryly notes: "Junior Recruits who experienced abuse were extremely unlikely to report to staff members who had encouraged or themselves perpetrated abuse."

As with other situations of institutional abuse around the world — from Vatican cover-ups to the willful ignorance and inaction exhibited by many during the Sandusky affair at Penn State in the US — it's not that those in charge didn't know what was happening so much as they didn't want to know. The level of negligence becomes most obvious in the face of witnesses or victims who did report abuse.


Many of the victims, some nearing 70, suffer long-term difficulties such as physical ailments and psychological trauma.

One occasion of this at Leeuwin, way back in 1971, even received national attention. A visibly injured recruit, Shane Connors, had reported his abuse to staff and was threatened with more violence by his abusers so he phoned his mother in distress. She in turn contacted the staff, her local MP, and Melbourne's The Sun newspaper. This lead to widespread media exposure and the Rapke Report, a judicial investigation.

As is depressingly par for the course when it comes to early investigations into institutional abuse, this report did nothing to change the culture at the offending establishment. While it found, "repetitive acts of bullying, violence, degradation, and petty crime during most of the years of its existence," the report also stated that the staff were largely upstanding men who carried out their duty with care, and that the abuse was neither systemic nor widespread. The report was never publicly released and Leeuwin would go on to house instances of abuse for another 13 years.

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Times have changed and the head of the taskforce responsible for the recent DART report, retired judge Len Roberts-Smith, has apportioned some of the blame to the very highest levels. He said in a recent statement that the Australia Defense Force, "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."


It should be mentioned that not everyone at Leeuwin experienced abuse, and not every staff member was involved or aware of how bad the problem was. But the problem was huge and it was endemic to the establishment.

Many of the victims, some nearing 70, suffer long-term difficulties such as physical ailments and psychological trauma. They've reported periods of debilitating panic attacks, trouble with their careers and families, and several live with alcoholism. Almost all suffered lingering effects from their time at Leeuwin. As ABC reports, even those who have received reparations — a maximum of AUD $50,000 ($47,000) — have found little ongoing support from the Australian government to help them deal with these effects. Victims have been offered counseling and the ability to take part in the Defense Abuse Restorative Engagement Program.

Beyond that, DART has already referred two cases to police and is considering referring three more, linked to alleged abusers still in the military. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, most famous for its work on church abuse in Australia, has received the DART report and may take further action.

Follow Girard Dorney on Twitter: @GirardDorney

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