Benn joined the navy with the strong desire to help his country and to honour a family tradition of serving in the defence forces. What happened to him there sent him down a radically different path and completely obliterated his defence career.
Father Crawley, a navy chaplain, ‘sponsored’ the 17-year-old Benn when he went on leave to recuperate from an illness – which meant that he promised Benn’s parents that he’d look after Benn while he was staying at a place owned by Crawley’s Catholic religious order. Instead, he supplied Benn with alcohol and when he was drunk, ‘made his move’. He continued to sexually abuse Benn over a number of weeks.
Benn kept quiet about Crawley’s abuse. But when he saw the chaplain driving out of the naval base with Benn’s good mate Tom, he was determined that Crawley wouldn’t abuse Tom as well.
Benn talked to petty officer Lisa Mulligan at her home. ‘I poured my heart out to her.’ Mulligan went in to bat for him but the navy swiftly closed ranks. The division officer ‘made her life hell’ Benn told the Commission, purely for offering him support.
Another officer told Father Crawley that Benn had made a disclosure. Benn was ordered to meet face to face with Crawley to resolve the issue, despite Benn’s protests.
At the meeting Crawley told Benn that he understood he’d been stressed lately and that if Benn ever needed to speak to him, his door was always open. The abuse wasn’t mentioned.
‘He tried to fill my head with a lot of bullshit, really.’ It brought home to Benn how insidious Crawley was.
‘It was pretty humiliating … I just wanted to lean across and punch his lights out.’ Benn asked to be excused from the meeting and walked out.
This abysmal outcome spurred Benn on to report the abuse to the naval police, who sent him to a psychologist. This wasn’t to help Benn with his emotional wellbeing but to determine if he was lying about the abuse. The psych report came back ‘truthful’. When the navy got this report ‘they were like, “Oh shit, let’s just palm this off to the civilian police”’.
But the civilian police were on Benn’s side – a huge leap forward from the naval police who Benn considers never believed him at all.
In the meantime, Father Crawley was appearing less and less frequently at the base until one day a new chaplain turned up to replace him. The next time Benn saw Crawley was at his own court case.
Benn had dropped ‘penetration’ from the charge and reduced it to sexual assault. He had decided it was the quickest way to get Crawley dismissed from the navy, away from opportunities to abuse cadets, and still receive a criminal charge.
At the last minute Father Crawley changed his plea from ‘not guilty’ to ‘guilty’. He received a two year wholly suspended sentence and was dismissed from the navy.
Benn was completely disillusioned. ‘It was such a big disparity – what I’d been through and what it cost me, and what he got charged with at the time.
‘It totally shattered my outlook on the judicial system in this country and pillars of hierarchy within the community, like the police and priests and people you’re supposed to be able to trust and go to.’
Benn tried to get on with his navy career but rumours about the case followed him. Nasty comments appeared in official logs. Benn was being ostracised as a whistleblower when he’d just been trying to change the culture of reporting.
‘The very people that I was trying to protect gave me a hard time.’
He left the navy and travelled. When he came back he pursued a completely different career path and tried to put the sexual abuse behind him. But when someone touched him inappropriately Benn became enraged. ‘I could have killed him, I was that angry.’
The incident led to a nervous breakdown and triggered an intense bout of depression. Benn now felt under pressure to deal with his past, and he did.
‘It was such a destructive thing inside. Because there’s so much guilt associated with what these people do.’ He started seeing a psychologist who helped him begin to unravel the emotional and sexual consequences of Crawley’s sexual abuse.
Benn is now the happiest he’s ever been, although he still has terrible dreams about the abuse.
‘You’re always thinking about it … The last 22 years I’ve woken up and thought about this every single day.’
He is no longer confused about his sexuality and though he loved the navy and still misses it, he has a job that fulfills him.
The outcome of Benn’s case against Crawley was disappointing but it was the catalyst for a police investigation against him. Crawley was eventually jailed for a string of sex offences.
Was there anything else he wanted to tell the Commission? Benn said no, there wasn’t. ‘From my point of view this is the culmination of 22 years of wanting things to change.’