SYDNEY — The Australian military was embroiled in a new sex scandal Thursday with 17 personnel, including officers, under investigation after hundreds of “explicit and repugnant” emails and images demeaning women were uncovered.
Army chief, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, said he was appalled at the revelations, which follow a government report last year detailing more than 1,000 claims of sexual or other abuse in the forces from the 1950s to the present day.
That report was sparked by the so-called Skype scandal in 2011, when footage of a young male recruit having sex with a female classmate was streamed online to cadets in another room without her knowledge.
“I’d say it’s worse than the Skype matter,” Morrison told a media conference, given the seniority of the staff involved.
“I view the allegations that are being made in the gravest light.”
He said they involve the alleged production and distribution of “highly inappropriate” material across both defence computer systems and the public Internet over the last three years. Illicit drug use may also be involved.
Three people have been suspended so far and may face police charges, he said. Another five could be suspended and nine more were under investigation.
A further 90 Australian Defence Force personnel are implicated in the email chain, Morrison added.
The highest-ranking officer was a lieutenant-colonel, with the remainder either majors, captains, warrant officers, sergeants or corporals.
Morrison declined to go into details of exactly what the material contained, but said “the matters both textural and imagery are demeaning, explicit and profane”.
He said he had spoken to some of the women involved and apologised.
“This goes to the heart of what I’ve said about systematic problems with culture inside the army and it in turn shapes the army and it in turn shapes the approach that I’m taking with regard to how we deal with this,” the army chief added.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith called the claims “despicable” and said he expected more victims would come forward.
“In my experience whenever there are public revelations or instances drawn to public attention of this ilk, then more people in the community will say publicly … that they themselves have been the subject of abuse in the past,” he said.
In the wake of the Skype scandal, the Australian government made a parliamentary apology to victims of abuse in the military and set up a compensation fund after hundreds of claims of rape and sexual assault.
As well as abuse, the government report last year depicted a culture in the military of covering up, failing to punish perpetrators and hostility towards victims who complained.
The government and the defence force say they are committed to change and have been working to implement new policies on social media, recruitment and the way in which complaints are dealt with.
Morrison admitted it was a setback.
“After the significant effort we have made to encourage women to enlist and remain in the army, I am extremely concerned at what appears to have been uncovered,” he said.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who led a recent review into the treatment of women in the defence force, said she was “absolutely appalled”.
“In a defence force that recognises that both men and women need to be a part for a high performance workplace , it is totally unacceptable,” she told ABC television, adding that the high rankings of those involved showed the “pervasive nature” of the issue.
“That’s what’s so abhorrent about it and it also shows the complexity of the issues that have to be solved,” she said.
Watch Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison’s official message, uploaded to YouTube on June 12.