Former NSW governor and senior naval officer Peter Sinclair told a royal commission that initiation ceremonies for young sailors should continue even though he conceded they could get “out of control”.
In the third day of a public hearing into sexual abuse in the Australian Defence Force, Mr Sinclair described initiation ceremonies as an “official” part of naval culture.
“For centuries, sailors have been conducting initiation ceremonies,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s in any way wrong. Indeed, my personal view is that we should continue to keep that tradition going.
“Initiation itself is not a bad thing. If it is an initiation that involves bastardry and abuse and physical abuse and denigration, of course that’s not to be condoned.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard testimony of junior recruits being subjected to horrific sex acts, brutal beatings and bastardisation as teenagers at the HMAS Leeuwin naval base in Fremantle, Western Australia.
Mr Sinclair agreed with a suggestion from commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan that initiation ceremonies could get “out of control”.
“When you have a process which you describe as being almost an official process and that’s an accepted part of naval life, when 15-, 16-year-olds … become part of that culture, it is not very hard to see how things can get out of control, is it?” Justice McClellan said.
Mr Sinclair, who served in the Royal Australian Navy for 41 years, was appointed executive officer of Leeuwin to address low morale on the base following a 1971 investigation which revealed a culture of bullying and violence.
Under cross-examination from Ian Fehring, representing a group of alleged abuse victims, Mr Sinclair agreed that assaults continued to occur at HMAS Leeuwin while he was in charge.
Mr Sinclair denied that the actions he took to address abuse at the base were unsuccessful, saying: “I find that a little bit insulting.”
He told the commission: “There were no complaints of sexual abuse made by any junior recruits to anyone in authority or to me during my time at Leeuwin.”
Confidential naval documents from the 1960s tendered to the commission revealed a zero tolerance for homosexuality, which could result in severe disciplinary action.
“It (is) necessary to persevere in the effort to stamp out the evil,” one document read.
Under cross-examination from Peter Nunan, representing two men who allegedly suffered sexual abuse as junior recruits on Leeuwin, Mr Sinclair was asked whether fear of punitive action prevented complainants from coming forward.
“Could it be … that one of the reasons the complaints of sexual abuse amongst the recruits were not made to the authority was because of the fear of discharge because of homosexual activity?” he asked.
“I guess that’s probably correct,” Mr Sinclair replied.
Former navy apprentice Ken McIlwain told Ten Network’s The Project of being repeatedly raped as a teenager when based at the HMAS Nirimba training base in Schofields in Sydney’s west in the early 1970s.
He urged other Defence abuse victims to detail their stories to the commission.
The hearing into alleged abuse in the Australian Defence Force is scheduled to run until July 1.