Theo Max's story

In the late 1970s Theo joined the navy reserve cadets in Sydney. He travelled miles from his home to train every Saturday. He was tall for a 15-year-old and described himself as a ‘very naive, very withdrawn sort of person’. There was a chaplain officer on the base who was very attentive to Theo from day one, taking him up to his office and quizzing him about all sorts of things. The second time this happened the chaplain’s questions became sexual, which Theo thought was weird.

The next time, the chaplain officer walked right up to Theo and rubbed the inside of his thigh and crotch. Theo was shocked and got out of there quickly. Nothing happened for a few months and he put it out of his head. Then the chaplain called him in again. He had pamphlets about the navy to show Theo, who was keen to join up.

He squeezed Theo’s crotch. Theo told him he didn’t like it. The chaplain said ‘probably best you don’t say anything, I won’t do it again. You don’t want anyone finding out that you have gay tendencies’.

And with that it stopped. Theo stayed on in the unit, didn’t say anything to anyone, and kept away from the chaplain. In 1980 he left the cadets. But two years later, still keen, he signed up to the navy for a six-year stint and went to Victoria for his basic training. He was 17. At week 10 he would have the option of changing his mind and quitting.

He was housed in one of four big blocks with 80 other junior recruits. The training was harsh and lots of boys were in tears at night.

The doors to the blocks were not locked. ‘There was no one left in charge’ and it was easy enough to gain entry. One night Theo was woken by a man touching him under the bed clothes. ‘He just sat there quietly at the side of the bed and his hand was underneath. It actually woke me up … just fondling my genitals and stuff.’

This happened twice. Both times the man, who was a leading seaman, then disappeared but Theo doesn’t know if he left altogether or went to another room. Theo talked to a chaplain about it, who advised him to report it to someone ‘higher up’. He did so.

‘This is nonsense talk … bullshit, that didn’t happen,’ is the response he got when he talked to a superior officer. Theo was told he was ‘making waves’ and to just get on with his recruit training.

At the start of week 10, Theo was taken ill. When he recovered, the same leading seaman who’d abused him turned up to drive him back to base. Theo was sexually abused again that night while his dorm mates were asleep. He complained again.

This time ‘I was just roasted’. Theo was ordered to take the optional discharge because he was now seen as a trouble-maker and a potential problem if he was posted to a ship.

‘We don’t want you on a ship if you’re going to talk about this sort of stuff.’ Theo has never forgotten the commanding officer’s words. ‘We don’t want the likes of you on our fucking ship.’

So he left, feeling disgraced and humiliated. He told his parents he’d left training because he was sick. Interestingly, there were quite a few other recruits who were taking the optional discharge but there was no talk among them about any sexual abuse.

‘For a person who wasn’t gay, I couldn’t talk about that to anyone.’

He put it behind him and went into a trade. It didn’t affect him much emotionally then ‘but it did over time’. Theo wondered if he’d led the seaman on somehow. He started suffering from depression which then snowballed through the 1980s and 1990s. His sexual self-doubt ended up costing him his marriage.

He never thought about reporting the sexual assaults to police. He didn’t want to ‘talk about that stuff’ and he was ‘very conscious of not being a gay person’.

But the memory of the sexual abuse was always there. ‘When you put it behind you … it all just slowly comes out later on, with depression and other things even more.’ Theo now wonders if his insecurity led him on to commit crimes. In the early 2000s, stories about sexual abuse in the navy spun him into another depression but he kept suppressing it.

Theo first disclosed the abuse to a psychiatrist, when he was in custody, then later spoke to a chaplain about it. Then he contacted the Royal Commission.

Theo missed out on having the career he really wanted and for that reason, he said, an apology from the navy would be good.

He believes more awareness of how perpetrators take advantage of certain environments is crucial. He also recommends that there be more psychological services for offenders in prison.

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