ADF leadership ‘protected’ air force chaplain’s abuser, royal commission hears
When the Rev Dr Nikki Coleman wanted to complain about the abuse and bullying she had experienced as an air force chaplain, she was told to deal with it herself.
The senior chaplain she spoke to said she should think again and that her report could “cast aspersions on an innocent man”.
At one point, when she was on leave after having suicidal thoughts, she was reprimanded for breaching her abuser’s privacy by reporting him to his accrediting body.
Coleman told the royal commission into defence and veteran suicide on Tuesday she wanted leaders to do the right thing and warned that defence capability could be 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”.
“The current senior leadership of the air force are cowards,” she said.
“You demand courage of everyone who serves under you … but 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 signed up to protect their country and serve under you.”
Coleman, an ordained Uniting Church minister who joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 2017 as a chaplain, started working with her alleged abuser in 2019 and suffered “physical and sexual assault … threats of dismissal or disciplinary action for trivial mistakes or shortcomings … inappropriate and unfair work practices [and] bullying”, as her counsel described them, although he said lawyers would call what happened “indecent assault without consent” rather than sexual assault.
Ten of Coleman’s 12 complaints against the person were eventually upheld, but he continued to work at Defence.
Defence told her she could not share information about what had happened, which she understood as a direction not to speak to the royal commission. She ultimately accepted a medical discharge so she could speak.
Coleman accused the leadership of “effectively protecting the abusers by allowing them to continue to serve”.
“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? 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,” she said.
Coleman said she decided to come forward because she needed to show the “moral courage” she often spoke about.
“I am very resilient. I’ve worked in a male-dominated area as a minister for 25 years and this abuse had an impact on me unlike any other … The abuse itself has had a profound impact on my mental health and my physical health. I think everybody has their breaking point and unfortunately I found mine,” she said.
She said the chaplaincy branch was “very dysfunctional” with “quite a toxic culture” that particularly affected women and LGBTQ+ chaplains.
In 2021 Defence held a review into the air force chaplaincy branch, in part because of her complaints.
The senior chaplain Coleman spoke to – who was from the same denomination as her alleged abuser – had “many, many opportunities to stop the abuse and he chose not to”, she said.
When she was thinking about making the complaint, the senior chaplain asked her not to include more serious allegations “because it would have a negative impact on my abuser and their family”.
“His advice at that point was to manage it myself because complaints of this nature need to be managed at the lowest level. At that point I was being assaulted and sexually harassed … plus bullying. He gave me suggestions about how to manage my abuser. At no point did he talk about intervening,” Coleman said.
She was also told to do a “difficult conversations in the workplace” online training unit, rather than making an unacceptable behaviour complaint.
Later, she was “cast aside”, as well as being told to restrict her movements to one building so that she did not bump into him. That meant she could not use the main office cafe and she said it was “humiliating” to tell colleagues she couldn’t join them but was not allowed to tell them why.
“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,” she said.
Coleman said unlike the air force, the army chaplaincy branch supported her and she did not think she would still be alive without them.
Her abuser ultimately left Defence and was lauded as having “faithfully served”.
The commissioner Nick Kaldas said Coleman’s treatment was “outrageous” and that if it had happened in the civilian world, “there’d be hell to pay”.