Abuse survivors angry at lack of change in Defence Force's 'code of silence' culture

7:58 pm on 16 July 2020

Abuse survivors are angry - but not surprised - that problems persist in the Defence Force's culture, even after four years of Operation Respect.

woman sitting on bed in room with light from window (abuse concept)

(File image). Photo: 123RF

A scathing independent report has found the Defence Force's culture still encourages "a code of silence" when it comes to sexual violence, harassment and bullying.

The daughters of former Air Force Sergeant and child rapist Robert Roper say it is unacceptable that some of those in authority continue to deny abuse happens.

The case of Roper, who was jailed for sexual offences against at least five girls in the 1970s and '80s, was one of the driving factors behind the creation of Operation Respect, which brought in new processes, tools, training and specialist teams for dealing with sexual assault.

Roper's daughter, Tracey Thompson, said she found parts of the new report hard to digest.

"There are some leaders within the Defence Force that feel that sexual and harmful behaviour does not exist and it goes on to say something else - and I can tell you now I almost picked my iPad up and threw it against the wall when I read that," she said.

Her sister, Karina Andrews, said the military must listen to survivors.

She said not enough had changed since the independent report released two years ago by Frances Joychild into the way the Defence Force dealt with complaints against her father by multiple women and girls.

"Women who've been there, done that, seen it - you know even from a child's point-of-view - seen the code of silence," she said.

Former naval officer Hayley Browne was raped while on deployment in the United Kingdom more than a decade ago.

She received an apology last year from Attorney-General David Parker after a five-year legal battle to get the New Zealand and British governments to take responsibility for failing to keep her safe at work.

Browne said improving the culture must be top priority.

"Cultural change is seen as an extra so it really ... at a governance level ... needs to be prioritised," she said.

Operation Respect Steering Group chair Air Vice Marshal Andrew Clark acknowledged culture change was a tough task.

"We have to drive this deeper into camps and bases in a more coherent way, and a more organic way, with better local communication, leadership and direction," he said.

Clark said Operation Respect was not broken - but clearly needed improving.

Tracey Thompson agreed and said she had faith in the top brass to get the job done.

The report made 44 recommendations.

Defence Minister Ron Mark stressed they would all be appropriately addressed.

"The review was critical and clearly outlines there is more work to be done in this space - this is not where the Defence Force wanted to be," he said.

"While I am disappointed, the Defence Force has welcomed this report and is accepting of this criticism."

Operation Respect will be audited every two years to monitor progress.

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