Leading the taskforce ... Len Roberts-Smith. Photo: Andrew Meares
THE Defence Force may be asked to suspend or reassign alleged rapists and serious abusers in its ranks while their cases can be fully investigated under the federal government's new military abuse taskforce.
Amid fears there may be suspects who still pose a risk to colleagues, the taskforce will immediately prioritise assessing allegations such as rapes and other assaults and consider whether to recommend ''administrative action'', the taskforce's head, Len Roberts-Smith, said.
This would be an interim measure while the cases are more thoroughly investigated and perhaps referred to police with a view to criminal prosecution, and could mean suspension or removal from command if the suspects are deemed a risk.
''In the case of some serious allegations … Defence may find itself in a position of having to take some sort of administrative action simply to mitigate the risk to other members of the Defence Force,'' Mr Roberts-Smith said. ''Defence does, of course, have a duty of care towards all members … in terms of occupational health and safety.''
A particular priority will be 24 alleged rapes during the mid-1990s at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, recently revealed about 10 suspects in those cases are still serving in the military. But he said no action had been taken against them because ''the evidence and the data that's available is quite sketchy … and I think it may be quite premature to make those decisions''.
Asked whether he agreed with this decision, Mr Roberts-Smith said: ''I'm not expressing a view about that because it is going to depend on the nature of the allegation in a particular case, who these people are, where they are.''
But he added there was ''no reason why appropriate administrative action could not be taken'', provided it did not prejudice any prosecution and was procedurally fair to both sides.
He agreed with law firm DLA Piper's warning that a rapist who went unpunished or even unreported might think he could get away with it again.
''I think it's a reasonable expectation that that may well have happened,'' he said.
Mr Roberts-Smith, a former military and West Australian Supreme Court judge, said cases referred to police for prosecution and possible trial could take years to resolve.
Administrative action is a set of internal punitive measures in the Defence Force that range from counselling and formal warnings to removal of command and even discharge.
The taskforce, which is expected to run at least 12 months, has already established teams of former and serving police to investigate the so-called ''ADFA 24'' rape cases and the abuse of boy sailors at HMAS Leeuwin.
They are among more than 1000 allegations of abuse dating back to the 1950s that the taskforce will examine. About 280 additional cases have already come to the taskforce through its phone hotline.
The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, announced the taskforce in November in response to an inquiry by DLA Piper into abuse in the Defence Force. That report was commissioned in the wake of the 2011 ''Skype affair'', in which a female cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy was unknowingly streamed on the internet having consensual sex with a fellow cadet.
Mr Roberts-Smith played down the likelihood that the taskforce would evolve into a royal commission, saying he was ''not inclined'' to go down that path because his main purpose was to resolve individual cases.
The taskforce does not have the power to order Defence to take action. But Mr Smith, General Hurley and the secretary of the Defence Department, Dennis Richardson, had all made it clear that its ''considered recommendations'' would be acted on.
The executive director of the Australia Defence Association, Neil James, said a small number of cases where a risk still existed was likely. The association would oppose administrative action if it were for punishment rather than protecting suspects' colleagues, he said.