One of the most senior figures in the Australian armed services has delivered a public apology to victims of sexual abuse in the defence force, telling a royal commission their stories will drive change in the organisation.
Australian Defence Force Vice-Chief Ray Griggs directly addressed the victims at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. “Your stories are changing the ADF and they have strengthened the resolve of the senior leadership of the ADF to stamp out abuse in all its forms and in particular, child sexual abuse,” he said.
“Your stories are changing the ADF and they have strengthened the resolve of the senior leadership of the ADF to stamp out abuse in all its forms and in particular, child sexual abuse,” he said.”People and systems have failed you and they have put others at risk and that is simply not good enough.
“I am deeply sorry for what happened to you. No one who pulls on the uniform of this country and no child who is under our care should ever have had happen to them what has happened to you.”
The eight-day inquiry into sexual abuse in the ADF has heard horrific testimony from victims dating from the 1960s until 2013.
“Your stories are both tragic and transformational and I thank you again for your courage in bringing forward these stories,” Vice-Admiral Griggs said.
He told the commission the ADF was determined to improve its culture and would not be swayed by its critics, who have dismissed the reforms as “politically correct”.
“We have made some significant changes to our culture. We needed to,” he said.
“We are trying to move away from the culture that excludes and allows what has happened in the past, to a culture that includes.”
“Strangely, the senior leadership team has been very publicly criticised for this approach. We will not be bowed by this criticism and we will continue vigorously to pursue a path where we have a culture which is diverse and inclusive.”
The commission has heard testimony from a number of survivors who said they were unable to report abuse for fear of being seen as “dobbers”.
Vice-Admiral Griggs told the inquiry that reporting abuse was actively encouraged in the ADF.
“At no time in our past have we had more diverse mechanisms to do so, in terms of confidential, anonymous reporting, a very strong culture of encouraging people to report,” he said.
Under cross-examination from Peter O’Brien, representing a number people who suffered abuse at HMAS Leeuwin, the Army Apprentices School at Balcombe and the ADF Cadets, the Vice-Admiral said the ADF would support victims.
“There has been a massive shift in the approach that Defence has taken towards dealing with these claims,” he said. “We are not going to shy away from our responsibilities.”
The Defence Abuse Response Taskforce’s funded counselling program for abuse survivors ceased on Thursday, the final day of the hearing.
Speaking outside the commission, Lisa Flynn, survivor litigation practice manager with Shine Lawyers, which is representing 150 people engaged in civil claims against the ADF, described the timing as “insensitive”.
“The deadline has come at a difficult time, given that ADF abuse is in the spotlight,” she said.
The taskforce responded with a statement saying most complainants who received counselling had either finished or switched to therapy outside DART. The statement said a small number of complainants would continue to receive funded counselling after June 30.
Susan Campbell, the mother of 15-year-old air force cadet Eleanore Tibble, who took her own life in 2000 after being falsely accused of an affair with an older instructor, spoke outside the commission to express her gratitude for the vice-admiral’s apology.
“But it must be followed up with action,” she said. “The most important action is that my daughter’s case is never repeated.”
Speaking outside the commission, Jennifer Jacomb, secretary of Victims of Abuse in the ADF, said she felt the apology was hollow.
“For all this talk of cultural change, abuse still continues,” she said.
The hearing before Justice Peter McClellan has adjourned, with the royal commission to hand down its report at a later date.