Sydney (AFP) - Hundreds of teenage boys suffered brutal physical and sexual abuse at an Australian naval base, a taskforce said 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.
It received thousands of complaints and led to the government making a parliamentary apology to victims.
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 terrifying 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, and of being so badly beaten that bones were broken.
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.
"I was constantly living in fear that I would be bashed, raped or assaulted. I was constantly in a state of anxiety and this was not a nice way to be," one recruit told the taskforce.
- Lasting damage -
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.
One former Leeuwin recruit said he was still traumatised after two men raped him on the same night at the base.
"I've lived with that for 46 years. I still live with it. I have terror every day. I can't get it out of my mind. I hate nights. I can't sleep," he said.
"I'm sure the other victims are still suffering as I am today."
Some alleged abusers are still serving in the military.
Roberts-Smith said the Defence Force let down the young recruits.
"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," he said.
"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.
The government and the Defence Force have been working to implement new policies on social media, recruitment and the way in which complaints are dealt with.
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.
Australia is currently conducting a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse after growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia, mostly in the Catholic Church.
Roberts-Smith said his report would be provided to the commission, given it involved under-age boys.