A military chaplain, who was indecently assaulted by a colleague, was pressured not to complain by another senior chaplain, who is now serving the royal commission where she is giving evidence. By Karen Middleton.

Defence ostracised chaplain over abuse claims

A woman with short hair and wearing glasses at a hearing.
Nikki Coleman gives evidence to the royal commission.
Credit: Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

A senior military chaplain – who tried to stop another chaplain from reporting her own allegations that a colleague had indecently assaulted, abused and harassed her – was subsequently given a Defence role supporting the royal commission where the abused woman is a witness.

The complainant, Uniting Church minister and military ethics specialist the Reverend Dr Nikki Coleman, gave evidence to the royal commission into Defence and veterans’ suicides this week, describing how reluctant both the senior chaplain and the Defence hierarchy had been to take action against the man who abused her.

Coleman, who left the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in March so she could give evidence to the commission, explained why she had chosen to speak up.

“For probably the last decade, I’ve been talking about moral courage within the ADF and outside the ADF,” she said. “And I didn’t believe that I could preach moral courage without showing moral courage when it really counted. I figured that this was actually the most important time for that.”

Coleman told the commission a colleague began abusing her in 2019 when she was a serving member of the ADF and a chaplain to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). After enduring it for three months, she approached a senior chaplain to seek advice and help. The senior chaplain advised against reporting it, quoting a Bible verse about keeping things in-house.

“His advice to me initially was to manage it myself because complaints of this nature have to be managed at the lowest level,” Coleman said.

The commission was told the most serious abusive behaviour to which Coleman was allegedly subjected included indecent assault, general assault and threats to kill. When she finally made a complaint, she excluded the most serious allegations because the senior chaplain told her they must not be included without “hard evidence”. Her complaint containing 12 other allegations was investigated and 10 were upheld.

A separate investigation of the senior chaplain’s handling of the matter found he had exhibited “poor leadership” but stopped short of declaring it “unacceptable behaviour” – a finding which triggers penalties that can include dismissal.

Commonwealth government lawyers at the royal commission have insisted both men’s names be suppressed.

After Coleman’s testimony this week, The Saturday Paper confirmed the senior chaplain who discouraged her complaint and then insisted she water it down is among dozens of Defence personnel appointed to assist the royal commission in its work, in roles that include providing support to Defence witnesses. It is understood he took up the position before the investigation into his handling of Coleman’s complaint was completed.

The royal commission, which was established in 2021, is examining the high incidence of service-linked suicide and how well the ADF, the departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), and other agencies support personnel during and after their service.

Before appearing as a witness on Tuesday, Nikki Coleman asked the royal commission to prevent the senior chaplain from sitting in the hearing room during her evidence. It undertook to do so.

A spokesperson for the royal commission told The Saturday Paper Defence appointees were independent of the commission and their selection was “a matter for Defence”.

“The protection and wellbeing of everyone who engages with the royal commission, including witnesses, is paramount and is central to the trauma-informed approach the commission has taken throughout this inquiry,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, Nikki Coleman said she believed it was “entirely inappropriate” for him to have a role associated with the royal commission.

The Saturday Paper asked the Defence Department whether it was appropriate for somebody who had exhibited “poor leadership” in dealing with an alleged victim of abuse to serve in a role supporting the royal commission witnesses. It did not answer the question, providing only a general response.

“Defence welcomes the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide as an opportunity to learn and strengthen our approach to mental health and wellbeing,” the response said. “Defence welcomes and thanks all those who have shared their lived experiences and engaged with the Royal Commission. Defence will continue to do all it can to support the work of the Royal Commission.”

The department also declined to say why it had failed to correct the parliamentary record after the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, gave evidence about the abuse allegations to a Senate estimates hearing in November last year.

When Greens Senator David Shoebridge asked about the 10 allegations upheld against Coleman’s abuser – without naming either party – Air Marshal Chipman replied: “It is a very sensitive matter and allegations have been thrown both ways.”

When Shoebridge asked what allegations had been made against the complaining chaplain, Chipman said: “There were multiple allegations over multiple years. I will need to go and get some more information. I am happy to take questions on notice, but I do not want to shoot from the hip with regard to these allegations.”

The Saturday Paper has confirmed Coleman subsequently wrote to Defence seeking an assurance that no such allegations had been made against her. She was told in writing that Defence would correct the record and clarify that no such allegations had been made.

When Defence lodged its answers to questions on notice with the estimates committee, however, no amendment was made to Chipman’s comments. Instead, its response said: “For privacy reasons, Defence cannot comment further on individual matters.”

Defence did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s questions about whether it could substantiate Air Marshal Chipman’s assertion against Nikki Coleman made under parliamentary privilege, why the record had not been corrected and whether it would be.

At the royal commission on Tuesday, counsel assisting, Peter Singleton, emphasised that its focus in relation to Nikki Coleman’s case was not on the abuse itself but on “the impact of the way it was managed or mismanaged thereafter”.

He outlined the sequence of events. When Coleman disclosed the abuse to the senior chaplain, he gave advice but did not intervene. At first, he told her not to report it outside her branch. Then he advised her not to include the most serious allegations because she had too little supporting evidence and they would have a negative impact on the man she was accusing and his family.

Coleman said the senior chaplain told her it would be unfair to cast aspersions on an innocent man. “That would be a direct quote,” she told the commissioners.

After working carefully for months on a written complaint about the abuse, she lodged it in 2020. Of the 12 allegations she included, 10 were upheld. After seven months of applying to know the outcome, she was given a redacted document containing basic findings. But she was not allowed to know what, if any, disciplinary action had resulted.

Coleman had disclosed the more serious allegations to another colleague, who eventually lodged a second complaint on her behalf, detailing what had been omitted originally. An investigation by the Joint Military Police Unit then led to a brief being prepared for the Director of Military Prosecutions.

Coleman was told in November last year that charges would not be pursued, first because the allegations were serious enough to warrant referral to the civilian justice system, and second, because the abuser was leaving the ADF to minister to a parish. She was never officially told what, if any, penalty he received.

“I verbally objected to that and was told that the air force has a different interpretation of the Privacy Act, and that I couldn’t be told the outcomes,” she said.

Coleman said her movements were restricted at her workplace while her abuser was allowed to move more freely. She was not allowed to explain the restriction to colleagues. Coleman said giving evidence publicly to the royal commission was the only way she could tell them, from the witness box, what had happened.

The commission heard that in 2021 the senior chaplain sent an email to all of Coleman’s colleagues – excluding her – announcing the abuser’s departure, praising his faithful service and telling what the commission heard were lies about the situation. He said that the decision had nothing to do with “administrative action”.

On being told about the email, Coleman became so distressed she was hospitalised. After that, she lodged a complaint of unacceptable behaviour against the senior chaplain. He was found to have demonstrated poor leadership.

Coleman said the senior chaplain declined to notify the church’s hierarchy about the abuser’s actions, which she said all ordained clergy are supposed to do since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse mandated reporting of anything that could affect a person’s suitability for ministry.

She notified the church herself and it undertook its own investigation. She was advised of those findings. Her colleagues were also advised about them – but not what the ADF investigation found.

“It’s a shock to me that a church can handle sexual abuse claims better than the air force,” Coleman said.

The chair of the royal commission, Nick Kaldas, a former deputy commissioner of the NSW Police, strongly criticised the non-communication practice. “It’s outrageous that a victim of any sort of offence is not told of the outcome fully and about what action is to be taken against the perpetrator to protect the perpetrator’s privacy,” he said. “I think if civilian courts operated on that basis, there’d be hell to pay.”

Coleman said that unless complainants were told the result, accountability was impossible. “I can’t judge how seriously my complaint was taken if I don’t know what the outcomes are.”

She said she managed to find out unofficially but was not allowed to tell even close colleagues. “It means that people can tell lies about what the outcome was. And that actually happened in my case, and I’m ordered to not talk about it, so I can’t counter that.”

Coleman said she was “just cast aside” after the complaint. “I was uninvited from chaplaincy events that I would normally be attending so that my abuser could attend. I was ostracised. I had falsehoods spread about me by a senior chaplain. It was unlike any other workplace I’ve ever been in. It was horrendous.”

She said it was army chaplains who stepped in when air force colleagues shunned her. “I’m exceedingly grateful for the pastoral care provided by the army chaplaincy branch or I don’t think I’d be alive.”

As Coleman gave her evidence on Tuesday, lawyers for the Commonwealth sought constantly to have elements of it suppressed. The hearing went into closed session repeatedly while counsel argued over what could and could not be revealed.

As her main evidence concluded, Coleman was encouraged to make a final public statement from the witness box.

“I truly want our leaders to show moral courage and do the right thing,” she told the commissioners. “But if that doesn’t help them, I’d like them to do it so that the capability of the ADF is not undermined by the dirty little secret that bullying and sexual assaults are rife and they’re not dealing with them adequately. In fact, they’re spending more time covering them up than preventing them.” 

She said military leaders demanded courage of others but did not demonstrate it.

“I’d like to finish by saying that the current senior leadership of the air force are cowards … You lack the moral courage to stand up to the bullies, the abusers and the sexual perverts who prey on the men and women who’ve signed up to protect their country and serve under you. You are cowards because you know the scope of the problem. But instead of doing something about it at a Defence-wide level, or even at an individual case level when you have the opportunity, instead you look the other way, effectively protecting the abusers by allowing them to continue to serve. You lie when you say you take unacceptable behaviour and more serious abuse seriously. You lie when you say that people are your most important asset.”

This week’s block of hearings, the royal commission’s 11th in the past two years, was focused specifically on leadership and accountability.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews also gave evidence, saying Defence and DVA systems actively undermine veterans’ ability to access support. He said his own government had established a unit to help veterans navigate the federal government’s system.

He criticised the lack of a national standard for service provision and what he said was insufficient coordination and inadequate data. He also condemned the federal system that quibbled over veterans’ claims – most of which were legitimate – instead of starting from a position of acceptance and only interrogating those that appeared irregular.

“If you believe people from the start, if there is a presumption in their favour, as a person of character and integrity and someone who served their country, then you will get ... much, much better outcomes,” Andrews said. He said such a change could save lives.

The commission also heard from veterans’ advocate Julie-Ann Finney, whose son David took his own life two years after being medically discharged from the navy in 2017. Finney said Defence’s approach was to “destroy and discard” its personnel.

“He was in hospital dying and they signed his discharge papers,” Finney said of her son. “He signed them and they walked away, which left my son in a hospital bed with no one to pick him up, nowhere to go, because Defence are not responsible. How is this anything human? How do you leave someone on a suicide attempt, in a hospital bed, and walk away from them, absolutely walk away?”

Opening this week’s block of public hearings, Kaldas urged the government not to let military leaders stop them taking action to fix “entrenched cultural, structural and systemic issues”.

“Our job is to inquire – it is not to govern,” Kaldas said. “And strong, decisive leadership will be required from government to stand up to the ADF’s top brass – as well as senior bureaucrats within Defence and DVA – to ensure the recommendations we make are acted on.”

The government recently rejected Kaldas’s request to extend the royal commission, due to report in June 2024, by another year.

Former ADF member Stuart McCarthy, who was among those who lobbied for the royal commission’s creation, is also calling for the royal commission’s term to be extended.

“Our original objective … was for it to be empowered and resourced to properly deal with high level impunity, lack of accountability, abuse and cover-ups in the departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs,” McCarthy said this week. He said the testimony from Finney, Coleman and others reinforced the “absolute necessity for high-level accountability”.

“The Albanese government must now not only extend the royal commission for 12 months, they must also give the commission the investigative resources they need to cut through the obvious obstructionism and stonewalling from those departments on public interest immunity and other spurious legal grounds.”

Nikki Coleman said both the military culture and its leadership directly contributed to the psychological stress that led to suicide.

“How many Defence members and veterans need to kill themselves before you stop obstructing the investigations of this royal commission and start to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem?” Coleman asked in a statement from the witness box, directed at the ADF leadership. “You are one of the big reasons so many service women and men are killing themselves and I hope that keeps you awake at night. This royal commission is the line in the sand. Which side of history will our senior leaders be on? We are watching.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "‘We are watching’".

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