Following his father’s advice to get an apprenticeship, Ralph joined the Navy in the early 1970s when he was 15 years old. At that time, he was the second youngest recruit in the Navy and moved from Queensland to New South Wales to enter as a ‘sprog’ - the name given to first-term personnel. Trainees who’d been in the Navy for four or five terms were ‘senior termers’. A room of three senior termers was assigned a ‘sprog’ to live with them and carry out chores like keeping the room clean, polishing everyone’s boots and doing the ironing. Ralph said the senior termers seemed to be able to do whatever they wanted and would issue random orders like getting ‘sprogs’ to run up and down the airstrip and then beating them when they stopped.
If a cadet failed to keep the room clean, he would be punished by a ‘bug-bath’. This involved four or five senior termers stripping him and forcing him into a bath where he’d be vigorously scrubbed with brushes and Ajax. Ralph noted that brushing was usually focused around the genital area.
From the age of 16, Ralph was sexually abused by one of his instructors, Paul Norman, who was a senior officer and instructor on the base. Norman was popular and charismatic and seemed to have a lot of influence - sorting people’s troubles and organising preferential postings for those he liked. Ralph told the Commissioner that recruits aged under 18 were only permitted ‘Cinderella leave’ and had to return to base before midnight. Exceptions were made for those who had a ‘sponsor’ and Ralph was aware that several of his friends had been sponsored by Norman. Within his first term, Ralph was invited by Norman to his home and given an excessive amount of alcohol, after which he passed out and awoke to find Norman fondling his genitals. This pattern of behaviour continued for four years.
Ralph said he couldn’t say anything because Norman wielded formidable power.
‘Paul Norman had influence throughout the Navy’, Ralph said. ‘He seemed to know “posters” – the people who organised postings, and he had a group of us which were like his favourites. And I never did it myself, but I know a lot of my friends went to Paul Norman to get something sorted out, to get them out of trouble, to get a posting that they wanted and he somehow organised that for them. And you always felt like you were beholden to him and if you said anything against him, you not only hurt yourself but you hurt all your mates that needed help.’
Norman lived with his wife who Ralph said was usually drunk and took little interest in the young men in her home. There was a group of favourite cadets Norman liked to have around him, all aged in their teens and early 20s. ‘Mostly skinny little kids.’
On one occasion, Ralph went with Norman to a youth homeless shelter and when they arrived, a boy of about 13 asked Norman if he was there to suck his dick. ‘He was trying to pretend he didn’t hear it. Then he said, “They’re wild kids”, something like that to downplay what this kid had said.’
Over a period of time, Ralph came to distance himself from Norman and the sexual abuse stopped when he was 20. In Ralph’s eyes, he felt the abuse stopped because he ‘got a bit stronger’ and didn’t let himself get in the situation where ‘we’d both had a lot to drink’.
Leaving the Navy after six years, Ralph found employment in satisfying jobs for the next four decades, but said he always had trouble ‘putting himself forward’. During his apprenticeship, he’d been invited to undertake officer training, but by then had a deep distrust of senior people. ‘I remember thinking “Why would I want to become an officer and be put in that category?” So I said, “No, not at all interested”.’
Ralph married young, but said the union was based on feelings around the fact that he and his wife had both been sexually abused, rather than love. He’d been diagnosed with depression and remembered how one day when he was in the Navy, his distress had led to him lying in the corridor in the foetal position. Everyone had ignored and walked around him until a senior officer came along, kicked him and told him if he had a problem he should write to his mother.
Telling his story to the Royal Commission was the first occasion Ralph had disclosed the abuse, apart from speaking in general terms years previously with his then wife. He said he came forward because he thought it important society have a conversation about sexual abuse and he wanted to show his support and help in some way.
‘We need to look at areas where there is some arbitrary power structure. I have a feeling that people who are drawn to abuse kids will find an avenue of doing it and be attracted to areas where there’s an imbalance - where they have an arbitrary authority or power to start with.’
When those situations are in place, there also must be some clear avenue of being able to be open that you can say something and do something. It probably needs to start at a young age - education that’s supported by positive outcomes. I do see there’s a lot of reporting of negatives, but maybe reporting or being open to some of the positives - how people have been helped or supported in reporting might encourage people to do it, rather than the reporting of the ratbags or punishments or whatever.’