By Alison Bevege
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's defense force has repeatedly enabled sexual abuse of teen recruits since the 1960s, a powerful government inquiry said in a report published on Tuesday.
Senior defense staff knowingly allowed recruits as young as 15 to be humiliated in initiation rites including being held down while boot polish was smeared on their genitals during the 1960s at one naval base, the report said.
During the 1970s and 1980s, teenage apprentices at an army base were severely sexually and physically abused by more senior apprentices after management failed to address a bullying culture, the report added.
The report was published by a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse, an inquiry which has held hearings for more than three years into abuse at churches, schools and government agencies. It will hand down its final list of recommendations to the government in December.
Aside from abuse of new recruits, the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) cadet program, which admits children as young as 13, has recorded 154 incidents of abuse since 2001, the inquiry has heard.
The Royal Commission found the ADF Cadets training and policy manuals have had the wrong information on the age of consent since at least 2000, which increased the risk of child sexual abuse.
The ADF manuals stated that the age of consent was 14 years, the inquiry said, when it is over 16 in Australia, depending on the jurisdiction.
The ADF said in an emailed response to Reuters that it has reformed its youth safety policies and has zero tolerance for abuse. However, it did not comment on the findings of abuse in the inquiry.
It now subjects all defense staff including civilians and contractors who interact with those under 18 to a Working With Children background screening check, the ADF said.
(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Byron Kaye & Shri Navaratnam)