CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's government and defense force commander apologized to hundreds of victims of abuse within the military on Monday, clearing the way for victims to receive compensation.
In an address to parliament, Defence Minister Stephen Smith acknowledged that soldiers, sailors and member of the air force had suffered abuse, often by superiors under the excuse of toughening up younger recruits, since the early 1950s.
An independent report into abuse within the military earlier this year found 775 plausible allegations of sexual, physical and mental abuse within the armed forces since 1951.
"To those men and women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) or the Department of Defence who have suffered sexual or other forms of abuse, on behalf of the government, I say sorry," Smith told parliament.
"You should never have experienced this abuse."
Smith said senior military leaders were committed to changing a defense force culture which has often turned a blind eye to abuse and was often hostile to women or those who spoke out or complained about their treatment.
The issue flared in 2011 when a female defense academy cadet was unknowingly filmed having consensual sex with a male colleague, with the incident broadcast over the internet to other cadets without her knowledge.
While action was taken against the male cadets, defense authorities also proceeded with disciplinary action against the woman over an unrelated incident, angering Smith and raising questions over the treatment of victims of abuse.
Australia's military commander, General David Hurley, said hundreds of thousands of people had served in Australia's military and most had no experience of abuse, although he acknowledged the suffering of those who were affected.
"On behalf of the ADF (Australian Defence Force), I say that I am sorry to those who have suffered sexual, physical or mental abuse while serving in the ADF," he said.
Smith said an independent task force would now examine specific allegations and rule on compensation of up to A$50,000 ($52,200) for victims. It will also refer matters to police or the military justice system if there is evidence of a crime.
(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Nick Macfie)